HOW TO DEAL WITH CONFLICT IN AN ONLINE MEETING

With more and more online meetings happening, you can expect increasing conflict in online meetings. Research shows that online conflict tends to escalate more and quicker. Do you handle it in the same way as in a face to face meeting? There is this saying that an online meeting is the same as a face-to-face meeting; it is just very different.

The challenge is to deal not only with opposing needs or expectations, but also the intricacies  of human dynamics and the limitations of technology. Body language is such an essential aspect of communication that the “second-hand nature” of it in online meetings is a significant liability. Without body language, it is difficult to pick up on the nuances in the responses of the other party. This can lead to a missed opportunity.

The first key to successful conflict management is to lead from the front.  The leadership of online teams is not limited to task leadership. A virtual meeting is still a meeting between persons with needs and expectations, with histories that the leader must leverage to improve the performance of the team that meets.

Identify what style of conflict handling is appropriate for the situation. Conflict is about unmet needs and expectations. There are two factors in the way people respond to conflict. The first is how assertive they are in pursuing the satisfaction of their needs and expectations. The second is how co-operative they are in meeting the needs of the other party, leaving their own needs and expectations unmet. The problem is when neither party is prepared to accommodate the other one, or if it is always the same person that accommodates leaving him or her increasingly dissatisfied.  There are five ways a leader can respond to conflict. Each one has its place and making the correct decision can go a long way in resolving the dispute. The first is competing (highly assertive behaviour). Second is accommodating (hardly assertive behaviour, yet very helpful at times). Half-way between these two is finding a compromise. A fourth response is avoiding the conflict, which is low on both assessertiveness and co-operativeness. Avoidance does have its advantages. The fifth mode is to build a collaboration between the opposing parties. Building collaboration is seldom possible in one meeting, however, one session can lay a foundation for successful collaboration.

The second key is identifying the conflict early. Conflict does not start with a blow-up in the meeting (or before or immediately after the meeting!). The process of conflict begins with different needs or expectations that remain unmet, which grows into disagreements, misunderstanding, discontent and expressions of unhappiness, and eventually polarisation causing disruption.  In an online meeting, it is especially important to pick up on disagreements and disputes early. Allowing conflict to escalate creates a situation where the rest of the meeting becomes uncomfortable and the levels of participation drops. In face to face meetings, observing body language, facial expressions and tone of voice helps to identify potential conflicts early on.

 

The third key is the limitations and strengths of working online. One advantage of an online meeting is that there is a tendency to listen and not to interrupt. But participants in the meeting are more likely to take disagreements with their ideas personally when delivered from a distance. Even in video meetings, it is not always possible to pick up on the cues which are communicated by non-verbal means (e.g. playing with a pen or drawing pictures on a page). A discussion between two participants can exclude others in the meeting and escalate as the communication is less tempered. We all have seen how people on social media and the comment section on webpages lose a sense of judgement. 

The fourth key is being prepared. Being prepared means, that you not only understand the issues but also have a process ready to help you facilitate the conflict. I use the acronym AFRICA to help me to remember the elements of a successful conflict mediation process.

·         Appreciate the issue and the people. Appreciation is to acknowledge the importance of the problem and valuing the team-members and their contributions. Do this without being manipulative by complementing the different parties in the conflict. Emphasise the value each one brings to the team and how both can contribute to the resolution.

·         Focus on the problem. A vital role of the leader is helping participants to focus on the issue and not on the “warring parties”. Make sure that everyone is clear on the purpose of the meeting and understand how the conflict relates to the purpose of the meeting.

·         Respect persons. Even if you focus on the problem, it is still necessary to respect the persons and the fact that they have the right of holding opposing perspectives. One way of doing this is to ask each party to state his or her case in 3 minutes. Then allow the rest of the meeting to identify the strengths of the argument. (Another way is to ask the parties to highlight the advantages of the other party’s arguments.)

·         Identify the attitudes and information that can contribute to a solution and better decision-making. Do not work for a compromise before it is the only or the preferred option for the situation. Accept that resolving the conflict can become a more extended discussion. It could even be necessary to have a separate process to reach a point of collaboration. At this point, it is imperative to act in line with the conflict-resolution leadership style you have identified inpreparation.

·         Commitment. Work towards designing a commitment that includes the opposing parties and yourself as chairperson. Indeed, the commitment to tasks is the responsibility of the team and not only the conflicting parties. However, it could be necessary to give the opposing parties extra duties such as working together to sort out the differences or a specific problem. In this case, the chairperson must commit to assisting where necessary.

·         Accountability. Hold the parties accountable for the decision they have made in the same way that the rest of the team is accountable. Liability must be practical. Good feedback at the next meeting and some check-ins in between meetings to ensure clarity, could go a long way.

 

A well-known e-mediator, Peter Adler, explained the success of the team he was part of as dealing with “the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunities lost or found.” It sounds about right, but the tips above can be useful to do just that.