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Online Conflict Resolution

By Mihaela Moussou and Nancy White, last edited 2/2000

Before embarking on online conflict resolution strategies, there are five key attributes of online communication that must be taken into consideration:

    • Lack of physical communication cues - We cannot utilize the huge range of non-verbal cues we use during the course of conversation to discern if our audience is understanding us, agreeing, disagreeing, getting uncomfortable or opening up. In cyberspace, we must explicitly ask for this information or proceed on potentially erroneous assumptions.
    • Potential impersonality of the medium (distance) - There is something about working in front of a monitor that looses some people's inhibitions and the communicate in ways they would not do offline. It's as if the social norms are less distinct and more open to individual interpretation. The explicit "naming" of norms can help counterbalance this inhibition. At the same time, the inhibition can free some people to communicate in ways they cannot offline.
    • Issues of asynchrony - When you have time to think about your response, you may be more thoughtful or you may let issues build up and potentially out of proportion. In online conferencing, one person's perception of a short period of time may be different than others' -- leading to feelings of being ignored. These are again subtle, unspoken issues than can cloud communications.
    • Public vs. private spaces and perceptions - People have different tolerances of what they think should be "public" or "private." These differences need to be taken into account when choosing to deal with issues in public and/or private spaces.
    • Limitations of writing and reading - We are not all poets and most of us lead busy lives. Our inattention to detail in writing and our speed reading through topics can lead to misinterpretations. Be explicit.

Communication skills to avoid misunderstandings

Here are three ways to avoid conflict through misunderstandings:

1) Separating the "I" from the "You"

'I' statements are used when we feel strongly about something and we want the other person to be aware of what is going on. This is instead of telling the other person what we would like them to do, or not. "I would be more comfortable if you first stated your personal goals about the plan." Vs. "You didn't state your agenda and thus led the rest of us on a wild goose chase."

'I' statements serve the purpose to present our case without causing defensiveness in the other person. The effective 'I' statement includes 3 parts. 'When I see/hear (behavior), I feel (feeling), what I would really like is (what is wanted)".

Example: 'When I see that my posts are not being acknowledged, I feel ignored. What I would really like is to have feedback on my input'.

2) Assumptions

Assumptions are our interpretations of what we hear, or read. They operate mainly as 'gap fillers' -- what is not there, what we perceive to be in between the lines. Assumptions rise from personal attitudes and beliefs, and are formulated and based on our own past history and experiences.

Fact: assumptions are always present and are hard to notice. Make a habit of checking assumptions. Ask. 'In reading your statement, I am assuming that .... Is that so?''

3) Active "listening"/Reading

Building rapport with another depends on the quality of attention we award that person during the act of communicating. Remember that the writer cannot see us nodding our heads or hear us saying "umm hmmm."

Communication occurs at different levels. For messages to be accurately received each and all levels need to be acknowledged and understood for the role they provide in conveying the message.

    1. Information
    2. As a speaker, or writer, be as informative as possible. Provide background and details. As a listener, or reader, ask open questions that help the other expand on the subject. Ask specific questions to get more details. Reflect back what you heard to check for accuracy.

    3. Feelings

Feelings are an integral part of our being. In some cultures, expression of feelings is inhibited, especially negative ones. It is easier in ftf situations to listen to and pick up feelings. Visual clues and voice tones tend to give away signs that may be more easily suppressed when communicating in writing. As a speaker, or writer, make sure to express your feelings when you sense that they are 'nudging' you, using the 'I' statements. As a listener, or reader, make sure to acknowledge those feelings when they are expressed. If feelings are not openly expressed but you sense something may be present, check it out, remembering that this is an assumption on your part. 'I am sensing that you may be feeling upset. Is that so?'

4) Perspectives

Fact: Reality is the result of more than one person's subjective perception of events. No one person holds the total reality of events. We need to respect the fact that the other person is holding a belief as strong as ours about the history of the events. These are just different personal perspectives of the same happening and are equally valid. It is in the openness of accepting the unfolding of these perspectives that a new form and understanding will emerge.

When describing an event, speak "From my perspective ...." This describes what was real for you and no one can take it away or deny you that reality. Equally, you are not doubting the other' ability to hold a different perspective.


Conflicts are great opportunities for learning and growth The stronger the emotion, the tighter the impasse, the larger the opportunity for a personal breakthrough. Conflicts help us identify the balance between control and emergence. Conflicts rise from our 'shadows'. Shadows are aspects of oneself that we might not acknowledge or be ready to accept. Those are not only the negative aspects of ourselves we are not able to see, it also includes positive qualities, abilities and talents that we are not ready to bring forward. This is very important to remember.

Shadows act through projection: seeing in the other person particular aspects that mirror those qualities we do not accept in ourselves. The things that we put out of our own awareness we see as coming to us from the other. For example, when we feel angry with someone for what we perceive as their inability to hear us, it reflects the anger we feel at ourselves for our own inability to hear others.

The traps shadows fall into: These are the 'hooks'. The behavior of the other person is in itself a neutral event. How we react to that behavior is the sign that we may have fallen in the 'trap.' The more inflamed we feel about someone's behavior, the clearer it is that we have activated our shadow and are in projection mode.

In order to move forward to a resolution process, we must acknowledge our own projections. These often come from our childhood, for instance, if we were often let down as children, we become angry when someone breaks a promise.

Questions to ask oneself: what causes me to have strong reactions (usually hurt or anger)? When / where and with whom does it frequently happen?

Moving forward

For resolution to occur there needs to be a sincere desire from both parties to reach a win-win solution, without needing to prove right-or-wrong. This is the opportunity for learning, for expanding one's perspective, for allowing the emergence of new insights, for opening the door for those dormant qualities to stretch out, have a peek at the light and perhaps decide to make an appearance.

This is the time to drop judgement, blame and defensiveness and open up the possibility for the freedom of being creative, of finding new ways to respond, instead of reacting. This is the time to be adventurous, inquisitive, curious, playful, and courageous.

Some questions

  • As facilitators what do we have to do to help the energy behind these behaviors emerge more in support of the group, rather than detracting from the group?
  • How do we enable the emergence of potentially important insights and issues from behind what we experience as the negative behaviors?
  • How do we balance that tightrope between control and emergence, where conflict stimulates participation, insight and creativity, but may also be chasing away some participants who do not choose or know how to operate in that environment?
  • How do we form group competency at conflict resolution?
  • How do we tell people something they are doing is really bothering us?
  • How do we tell the forest from the trees, and know when to simply act in an authoritarian role to stop what has become "destructive" behavior?

These are questions with very few answers, but many paths for exploration. Lets talk about them.

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