Learning to embrace the storms of online conflict

For the past three months I’ve been experimenting with ways to facilitate our decision-making on Loomio. At Enspiral, we use Loomio to test new ideas and decide pretty much anything that affects the whole network.

Part of the purpose for the experiment was to try to ‘reduce noise’. We’re lucky enough to have a highly active Loomio group. There’s often half a dozen active threads at any one time.

While only a small percentage of contributors actively participate in decisions (we’re talking 10 to 20 percent), a much larger percentage (somewhere from 70 to 90 percent) read most threads, even if they don’t actively participate.

Dealing with conflict is one of the toughest challenges with online facilitation

So many emotional clues are lost when you’re online. Sighs, bored looks, raised eyebrows, sniggers, slumped shoulders.

Instead, you might just get silence. Or perhaps a comment that’s desperately trying to express deep feelings.

But the thing is: it’s hard to explain emotions or gut feelings online. Without kind body language to support the words, somebody might interpret these comments as something totally different.

“This feels wrong to me…” might be received as “Your idea is stupid”.

“That comment was offensive…” might feel like “You’re a bad person”.

“I’m frustrated about…” might be interpreted as “I’m so annoyed at you.”

Because of this, my default approach was to steer conversations away from conflict. Time and attention is a premium commodity, so why allow a conversation to be distracted or derailed?

Five approaches to managing conflict

One of our members recently shared a blog post by Randy Conley from leadingwithtrust.com on managing conflict.

The post refers to Thomas Kilmann’s model of conflict. This suggests there are five modes of addressing conflict:

  • competing
  • collaborating
  • compromising
  • accomodating
  • avoiding.
Conflict model

Randy explains that we all tend to have a default mode we use when faced with conflict…

but that particular mode isn’t always appropriate for every situation. The key to effectively managing conflict is to understand which mode is most appropriate for the situation given the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.

My default mode when facilitating our Loomio discussions was to avoid conflict.

In one thread, somebody suggested they were offended by a comparison to a religious movement. My response was to thank them for calling out the comment, but remind everybody of the need to stay on topic.

So what’s the best way to address conflict online?

Loomio’s purpose is to allow people to make decisions online together. Decisions that give everybody the chance to say what they need to be fully involved and fully heard.

In other words, it’s about collaborating in the face of conflict.

The collaborating mode is the highest use of assertiveness and cooperation and is appropriate when your focus is on merging the perspectives of the parties, integrating solutions, and building relationships.

I was focussing on reducing noise (avoiding conflict) and keeping the peace (accomodating). But this meant I was preventing or getting in the way of opportunities for collaboration.

Coming into Enspiral, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the honesty and openness of the network. An organisation that cares. People saying what they mean. Openly raising conflict and bringing their real personality to work everyday.

All those thoughts and feelings that are so often bottled up at work. Frustrations that usually are only released after seven drinks in a dark corner of a pub on Friday night.

It’s easy to fall back into the security of avoiding conflict. It allows you to move on quickly to what you might see as “the real work”.

But actually when conflict arises, that’s when the real work begins.