Online conflicts don’t have to be!

Today we’re talking about online conflicts and how you can identify needs and get problems out of the way, using the Harvard Method.

Today we want to take you on an exciting journey – into the world of online conflict management. You know that feeling that there’s an invisible “elephant in the room” during your video conferences? You are not alone. In our digitized world, conflicts are inevitable and it is important to be prepared for them.

This blog post is based on our online workshop Mastering Online Conflict: The Harvard Model for Remote Leadership and was delivered at this year’s Nuremberg Digital Festival 2023.

The three core principles

Our method is based on the Harvard Model of Conflict Facilitation, developed by the inspiring Roger Fischer. Fischer once said, “An open mind is not an empty one.” This quote serves as our motto. It reminds us to look at conflicts from different perspectives and to be open to different solutions. But it also encourages us to be well prepared and to have our goals clearly in mind.

We follow three core principles: consider the needs of the team, create a suitable infrastructure, and constantly reflect on and develop the way we collaborate digitally. Our workshop offers various approaches and services to put these principles into practice.

In digital environments, it is particularly important to identify all parties involved in a conflict. This may require planning ahead, as not all members are active in the same communication channels. That means you need to be proactive to make sure all voices are heard.


Why online conflicts are often not visible

And what exactly is the conflict? This can be harder to identify than you think. Often there is not just one big conflict, but a lot of “mini-conflicts.” Each party involved brings its own perspective and these can be quite different.

How you approach online conflict – your conflict resolution strategy – can greatly influence the course and outcome. Different approaches lead to different solutions and that’s absolutely fine. There is no one-size-fits-all way to resolve conflict.

Online conflict management is often more complex than it seems at first glance. They consist not only of what is obviously on the agenda (the factual conflict). Often there are deeper levels: Interests, needs, feelings, relationship problems, communication problems and structural conditions within the organization.

Digital conflicts have their own challenges. There is often uncertainty about how best to approach and resolve them. This uncertainty, coupled with possible information gaps and limited nonverbal communication in the digital world, can complicate conflict resolution.

The communication ladder

Communication is key, especially in digital spaces where conflicts can often pop up in unexpected ways, so we want to give you some valuable advice on how to navigate these situations effectively.

Imagine you are climbing a ladder. With each step, you move in the direction of clearer communication. At the lowest level, we have email. Step it up a notch and you have phone calls. Another level takes you to video conferencing and finally, when possible and practical, face-to-face meetings are at the top.

Why is that? Emails can easily lead to misunderstandings. They provide little context and leave the sender’s mood in the dark, causing the recipient to interpret the message according to their own emotional state. This can lead to undesirable conflicts.

Enough with the head cinema!

Our human brain has an impressive ability: it fills in missing information. Sounds great at first, doesn’t it? The problem is that in digital spaces, it often leads to “head cinemas” where we imagine reality to be worse than it actually is. And suddenly we turn off our cameras or avoid replying to messages. These are typical signs that a conflict is simmering.

To better manage such situations, it is important to directly address online conflicts and actively deal with them. It can be hard to admit, but when conflicts are not resolved, some people believe the only solution is to leave the team. We want to avoid that, don’t we?

Online conflicts can certainly have positive effects. They give us the opportunity to get to know our team members better, identify problems and grow together. So, instead of avoiding conflict, let’s see it as an opportunity to improve ourselves and our teams.

Have you ever come across the saying, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”? It turns out that this statement also applies to teams and organizations. Conflict can actually be an incredible opportunity for growth and development. They expose weaknesses and allow us to learn from them and improve.

What conflict resolution strategies are you left with?

In our recent webinar, we discussed the five phases of digital team building, with a particular focus on the “storming” or conflict phase. If your team is at this stage, then you are in the middle of the process of coming together. Here, conflicts are not only normal, but even important. They offer you the opportunity to learn how to manage them effectively and grow from them as a team.

To help you find your own path through conflict, we’ve developed a self-test to help you identify your personal conflict resolution type. Based on this insight, we address various conflict resolution strategies: Assert, Yield, Avoid, Win-Win and Compromise. None of these strategies is best in every situation. The appropriate strategy always depends on the context. Therefore, we emphasize learning when which strategy is best to use. When moderating an online conflict, it can be especially helpful to bring in someone who has a different preferred conflict resolution strategy. This promotes diversity of perspectives and helps to find a broader range of solutions.

How to moderate online conflicts with the Harvard method!

Now, how does one proceed concretely when one has to moderate a digital conflict? Our approach is to focus on the interests and their fulfillment and to reach a clear agreement with which all parties are satisfied. In doing so, we recommend “growing the pie instead of dividing it.” This means that instead of focusing on the distribution of limited resources, we are working together to try to create new opportunities that benefit everyone. This process should be creative and collaborative.

How great would it be if we could address online conflicts with a clear and proven step-by-step process? The great thing is: there really is such a process. It is called the Harvard method of conflict resolution. And here are the crucial steps you should follow in the process:

The first step is to find a common standard or criteria. This should be important and acceptable to all parties and forms the basis for a good solution. Think of rules or principles that are inherent in and accepted by all parties.

A central tool of the Harvard Method is the consideration of the best alternatives to an agreement – or BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Before you go into a conflict conversation, consider: what happens if no agreement is reached? This thought process can help you identify potential alternatives and map out your negotiating space.

But even the best method is of little use if the culture in the team is not right. So here are three tips on how you can build a positive conflict culture: Practice, practice, practice. Talk openly about feelings – this may be unusual at first, but it gets easier with time. And create spaces for conflict resolution – be it through regular team meetings or even a special framework for dealing with conflicts.

How do you address online conflicts in practice?

Now it’s time to put theory into practice. Here are the four steps of the Harvard Method in action:

  1. The preparation: Everyone on their own collects topics, questions and information. What are the most important aspects of online conflict? What would be possible solutions? Here, time and quiet for thorough consideration is important.
  2. The video conference: Here, everyone openly communicates their needs and interests. It is important to test assumptions about the other party by asking questions. This is the only way to ensure that you have correctly understood the perspective of others.
  3. Brainstorming: Based on the collected interests and needs, you develop solutions together. Everything is allowed, everything is collected. The evaluation comes later.
  4. The review: Which of the imagined solutions best meets the established criteria? Which way is best for everyone? Here you decide which path to take.

In conclusion

Finally, a few tips for moderating conflict talks: Good preparation and clear rules for communication are the key. After a while, you should check the result again – has the conflict really been resolved?

We point out here again that you do not have to find support alone. We have many resources and opportunities for support available online – from webinars to individual coaching. Use these opportunities to develop your conflict management skills and strengthen yourself and your team.

Good luck on your conflict resolution journey, and feel free to let us know what you think of the Harvard Method in the comments!

Want to read more exciting blogs on the same or other topics? Then take a look here.

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