Working with conflict in an online environment

Whether at work, at home, or in a community setting, conflict is practically inevitable, and conflict, by its very nature, is complex. The recent global pandemic has added new layers of complexity to managing conflict, due to much of our work and community settings moving to online platforms. Managing conflict in an online environment presents new challenges for conflict management practitioners as well as those directly involved in the conflict. Thankfully, there are several effective strategies available to leaders and conflict management practitioners, to help better navigate working with conflict in an online space. In this article, we uncover the challenges and opportunities that online environments present for working with conflict and reveal tips for effectively negotiating these experiences.


The challenges of working with conflict online


Unresolved conflict, whether it be in the workplace, in a litigation setting, or elsewhere, is difficult enough to manage in a traditional environment. It is all the more challenging in a virtual setting, where parties, mediators, and practitioners don’t enjoy the benefits of proximity and face-to-face communication. Some of the challenges presented by working with conflict in an online environment include:


It is harder to build rapport and trust: Building both rapport and trust is incredibly important when it comes to working through conflict, and this can be made much more difficult when working online. Although certainly not impossible, it can take more time to establish trust and requires patience, dedication, and open-mindedness from all parties.


Holding the attention of participants is challenging: In a real-world setting, practitioners or facilitators can create an environment with minimal distractions and exercise a level of control over that environment. When working through conflict online, it is difficult to manage the distractions and space of participants. This means it is harder to gain and keep people’s attention as we are unable to use body language.


It is difficult to monitor people’s distractions: In a face-to-face setting, distraction is much more obvious. You may notice people looking at their screens, phones, or avoiding eye contact. In an online setting, however, distraction is not always obvious. This is especially hard to manage when people have their cameras switched off, as is regrettably the case in many online meetings. Without peripheral vision, it is also harder to see who is looking at whom.


It is difficult to gauge reactions: When working in an online environment, it can be difficult to tell how what you are saying is being received (especially in large groups). While you may be able to see people nodding, for example, it is difficult to see their eyes, particularly if the lighting is poor or someone is wearing glasses. This adds to the challenge of building rapport and trust. Likewise, it is almost impossible to notice some subtle physical cues such as sweating, breathing abnormally, holding the body stiffly, or dilation of the eyes.


It is impossible to ‘stage’ the setting: When working through conflict online, we no longer have the benefit of being able to stage the setting. For example, triangulating the mediator and parties so that parties may talk to both the mediator and directly to each other.


Technological challenges: Working online presents a new set of challenges thanks to technology. Dealing with lags in connection, one or more parties dropping from the call due to connection issues, and varying understandings of technology can all add to the complexity of working with conflict online. While the facilitator must be comfortable with technology and its foibles, a lower level of understanding by participating parties can cause disruptions and difficulties for the process.


Less information about emotions is available: Without access to as many physical cues, it can be hard to detect the emotional state of the parties involved. Furthermore, without the benefit of mirror neurons, one of a mediator or facilitator’s most valuable tools – being able to help people regulate their emotions by exuding a calming presence – is made unavailable.


Talking to fill spaces: When we can’t use body language to intervene (including using ‘mediator hands’, leaning in, or physically stepping between parties) or set the pace of an online meeting, more words are required to fill those spaces.


Transitioning back to face-to-face can be tricky: For those who’ve become used to working online, transitioning back to a face-to-face setting can be challenging. Moving away from the online space means losing the comfort of a virtual filter, removal of barriers that the online setting provides, and once again being able to see the other parties and how they move in full. This transition can be awkward for some and downright intimidating for others.


Privacy concerns: Privacy is one of the most important concerns, both in a legal sense and in building trust when working with conflict in an online environment. The things we need to be concerned about include, is there someone else in the room, is someone recording the proceedings, and if recording is agreed upon, who can access the recordings and for how long? While we can ask this of the people involved, compliance is very difficult to monitor or enforce.


Some of the other factors that present challenges include:

  • There are varying levels of access to resources that make online engagement possible and/or effective.
  • People may use technology to avoid learning to engage in person.
  • It is hard to interrupt people, and while only one person can talk at a time, it can be tricky to intervene.
  • It is challenging to monitor what is happening in the chat while monitoring video discussions.
  • It is more difficult for a person to signal to the facilitator that they are uncomfortable.
  • People may feel more emboldened to be confrontational or act as ‘keyboard warriors’ (psychologists call this ‘the online disinhibition effect’).
  • Encouraging a conversation, rather than just voicing opinions, can be tough.
  • Being culturally considerate (just like you would in face-to-face settings) can be harder to navigate.
  • Setting up your own virtual space and welcoming parties to it, as a practitioner, requires different skills and strategies.


Opportunities for working with conflict in an online environment


Prior to the pandemic, around 20% of Australian companies had employees working from home. During the pandemic, this has risen to 44% and continues to rise. Of course, it is not only traditional work settings that have been shaken up by lockdowns and the rise in work-from-home. Litigation, mediation, community groups such as churches and support groups, and more, have all had to adapt to the online space.


Although working with conflict online presents many new challenges, there are also opportunities to be had. The online space means working with conflict can be:


Less time consuming: There is no travel time, nor the stress of having to find parking, or spend time getting ready in the morning in the same way.


Cost-effective: As many online platforms are free, and the need for room hire and travel expenses is no longer a concern, online meetings can be much more cost-effective.


Reduced stress: As parties are attending from the comfort of their own environment and are not required to be in the same room as other parties, the process can be much less stressful for some. What’s more, the ability to switch off a camera or leave the room makes it much easier to mitigate stress and anxiety.


Facilitated all over the world: The online environment means being able to broaden horizons and expand business to new areas, while remote clients can feel more confident about their privacy (and not having to bump into someone on the street, for example).


Easier to manage the conversation: In an online setting there are fewer opportunities for side-bar conversations, snide comments, and aggressive or unpleasant facial expressions and body language (although this may happen in chat and text messages).


More intentional: Facilitators can be more intentional about including everyone by actively asking everyone to speak and allowing equal time to all parties.


Tips for working with conflict in an online environment


The recent COVID-19 pandemic has meant that workplaces all over the world have had to adapt to new settings, new parameters, and new working norms, although most of us were unprepared for this shift. Here are a few tips for successfully working with conflict in an online setting:


Set protocols and boundaries: Know and share from the outset what will happen if things go wrong, such as if the call is dropped (how long to keep trying to reconnect, what happens with the people still connected) and share alternative contact details for all parties and perhaps a third party (who can contact and check on them if necessary) for each. Also, be sure to set clear boundaries around behaviour and when it will become necessary or appropriate to mute someone.


Focus on intake questions and orientation: Gather information about each party’s comfort level with using technology and any experience they may have. They may need extra resources to become confident with working online. Orientation sessions may be required to help people understand the technology.


Set protocols for the technology: Determine and share details about how cameras will be used, whether microphones should be on/off, the chat function, breakout rooms, the waiting room, how to virtually raise a hand and when, and the etiquette around eating and drinking during the meeting.


Set shorter online sessions: Use shorter sessions or offer breaks, to allow people to rest and have a chance to move around and be away from the screen and lights if and when necessary.


Change the language of standard questions: Be prepared to ask questions and raise concerns, particularly with regards to privacy and safety:


  • Are you in a confidential setting?
  • Is there anyone else in the room with you that we are not aware of?
  • Is there anyone nearby who may enter the room?
  • When you’re in this room, is there anyone who can overhear your conversation?
  • Is anyone using any recording devices at the moment? Are they planning to?
  • Are you willing to raise concerns if someone else is in the room? (And agree on how this will be communicated).
  • If someone else is in the room, do they have their own camera and device or are they sharing?


Rapport building sessions: A dedicated rapport or ‘get to know you’ session can help to overcome the barriers to building trust and rapport that are presented by working with conflict online.


List of local resources: Having a list of local resources such as counsellors, emergency numbers, or referrals for the area in which the parties are located can be helpful in case of emergency or if things go wrong.


Sharing platforms: Google docs, for example, can be a valuable resource for sharing and collating information from the sessions. Some online mediation platforms offer all-in-one solutions for video, audio and document sharing.


Think carefully about online work: Is working online appropriate in this situation? Consider a hybrid scenario of working online and then moving to face-to-face where appropriate or where it may be beneficial. Facilitators and practitioners may also consider if and when hiding self-view is appropriate.


Allow time for social chats: Whether before, after, or as a formal part of the session, allow specific allocated time for social chat so that you can avoid this overtaking or interrupting the session.


Have clear agendas: To keep things on track in the online space, be sure to set clear agendas and formulate questions to help focus the discussion when necessary.


When it comes to working with conflict in an online environment, we face innumerable challenges. However, by adapting our approach and being aware of the new parameters set by online work, we can ensure that conflict management does not suffer as a result. In fact, by embracing the opportunities that working with conflict online presents, we can aim to enhance conflict management, for better outcomes for all parties.


This blog was prepared based on discussions that took place between our Conflict Leadership Program members in one of our monthly group sessions late last year. I am grateful for their ongoing engagement and willingness to share ideas and experiences as we work towards a more peaceful future together.



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