3 Essential Tips to Resolving Conflict while Working Remotely

March 14, 2021

3 Essential Tips to Resolving Conflict while Working Remotely

“Did she really use that emoji on me?”
“Was he being deliberately dismissive, or does he just sound like that online?”
“K???”

One of the greatest pitfalls of virtual communication is how easy it is to misunderstand one another. Without the non-verbal relational and emotional cues that we take for granted in real-life settings—tone of voice, body language, eye contact, and so on—interpersonal conflicts between team members might pose a much bigger problem during work from home (WFH) than before.

Clearly, effective communication is not just important, but indispensable in effective virtual teamwork, especially when it comes to dealing with interpersonal conflicts remotely. Here are three essential tips to resolving conflict while working remotely.

1. Make sure everyone is aligned to the same goals

Prevention is the best cure. There’s an old adage frequently used in couples counselling: “it’s not me versus you; it’s us against the problem.” Interpersonal conflicts are fundamentally tricky to navigate when each party prioritises their own self-interest and well-being over that of the other.

In such situations, problem-solving tends to take a backseat to the interpersonal clashes that accentuate intra-team conflicts.

Without a solid foundation of mutual trust and commitment towards the same goals, such conflicts can greatly erode effective teamwork.

Managers therefore need to ensure that all team members are on the same page with regards to the team goals.

For example, knowing the “why” behind those goals can be just as important as knowing what exactly those goals are, particularly in times of crisis like this. People are generally more willing to sort out their differences when they realise that they’re all in the same boat and that they’re all driven by a common purpose.

The more aligned your team is towards the same goal and the clearer each team member is about their roles and responsibilities during WFH, the better.

2. Out with conflict avoidance, in with open communication

Risk-averse cultures tend to put a heavy emphasis on maintaining the status quo. Consequently, conflict avoidance might be the norm, along with a strong dislike of direct confrontation. Tensions, incongruence and disagreements might be routinely swept under the rug in the interests of “keeping the peace.”

In a WFH setting, however, this can be deadly for collaboration. With far less face-to-face interaction than before, there is already much higher potential for miscommunications and misunderstandings to occur.

A conflict-avoidant approach only make things worse; a long-ignored but constantly brewing conflict may quickly turn explosive when not dealt with appropriately.

Managers need to make clear and open communication the norm instead. Any disagreements between team members should be dealt with swiftly and with mutual respect, before it can snowball into a long-running conflict that jeopardises collaboration.

3. Normalise empathetic communication

We’ve all dealt with “keyboard warriors” before; it seems as if they’ve got a constant chip on their shoulder each time they communicate virtually. In person, though, they might seem mellow and generally calm; completely unlike their online persona.

As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason behind this phenomena: the online disinhibition effect. Because of the dearth of face-to-face contact and the relative anonymity in virtual settings, people tend to be less restrained in terms of expressing themselves online.

It’s much easier to type a strongly-worded email or chat message, for example, than it is to have a difficult face-to-face conversation. Likewise, in certain situations, switching to video call itself can be enough to defuse a potential conflict before it escalates, since video mediums allow for more non-verbal communication to get across.

Additionally, managers must ensure that team members:

  • Communicate respectfully with each other at all times (and that leaders themselves model respectful communication with everyone around them)
  • Give the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to jumping to conclusions
  • Respond with empathy, patience, and understanding, instead of emotional knee-jerk reactions
  • Focus on rational problem-solving and accountability instead of on blaming, shaming, and virtual finger-pointing.

P.S. Learn what it takes to defuse and resolve any conflict that comes your way; sign up today for SSA Academy’s course on facilitating effective communication and engagement at the workplace!

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