The best ways to deal with conflict during virtual collaboration

The power inherent in building a shared image—whether a map of the current state, an ambitious vision story, or a new or updated process—is that it forces you to shift from discussing something to defining it. The work required to define an intangible “thing” (the “elephant” if you will), forces consensus around critical questions and demands concrete answers.

The downside of building consensus, though, is that it can be difficult. It’s rare for groups to always be in complete agreement and this isn’t unique to virtual collaboration. People have different perspectives, passions, and goals. It’s hard enough getting a group to agree on where to order lunch, let alone on how to deal with enormous issues such as growth, innovation, and transformation.

But the solution isn’t conflict-avoidance—that’s just a different kind of unproductive toxicity. Resistance or conflict isn’t always bad—good conflict can be extremely beneficial, challenging groups to think beyond entrenched positions and previously accepted limitations. Here are some ways for facilitators, strategists, and creatives to help a group better understand one another, which can reduce tension and disagreement.

  • Be the referee: Model good behavior as a neutral third party. Establish guardrails to keep participants focused on solutions rather than grievances, and don’t allow passive-aggressive behavior to go unchecked. Just remember that it’s better to praise in public and counsel in private.
  • Use breakouts: It can be intimidating to express contrary opinions in a big group—even on Zoom. A small group of 3–5 participants provides an easier venue to float ideas or bring up issues. Then anything helpful or relevant can be shared with the larger group.
  • Allow productive debate: There’s no telling what might spark debate, or what might lead to a breakthrough. So don’t immediately shut down disagreements; instead, guide the group in figuring things out within the agreed-upon guardrails.
  • Appreciate different communication styles: We all learn and communicate in different ways. A lot of non-verbal communication gets lost in virtual meetings, which is actually quite significant considering it typically makes up 60–70% of how we communicate.
  • Play it back: In quarrelsome situations, over-communication can be helpful. Paraphrase contentious statements and confirm assumptions. Ultimately, you want to make sure everyone’s contributions are captured and understood as you work toward the goal.

Lesser discord also affects morale and kills the creative, collaborative vibe. Left unresolved, even smaller conflicts can be poisonous. You still must resolve situations that stop progress or create divisions. Here’s how to cool things down when the heat starts to rise.

  • Ask questions: When a back-and-forth becomes heated, be ready to step in and ask questions that you think can push the conversation in a better direction, questions that circumvent what might seem to be unaddressed issues.
  • Expand the conversation: If a discussion is dominated by participants that don’t see eye to eye, ask others for their thoughts. Make it clear that this group was brought together for a reason and everyone needs to be heard.
  • Watch for overreactions: Calmness and respect go a long way. Humans evolved a fight or flight response for good reasons, but business meetings are not one of them. Encourage thoughtful responses rather than testy reactions and call for a quick break if you need to have a private discussion in a breakout room.
  • Build, don’t bully: The old “Yes, and…” improv approach can be tweaked in lots of productive ways. It’s better to avoid negative reactions and build on ideas instead.
  • Encourage resolution: Meetings end but conflict lingers, a toxic agent that saps attention, energy, and empathy. Afterwards, offline, you may need to ask those in conflict if there’s something else at play, and that you’re concerned the project will go off track if things continue to simmer.

We can’t prevent all conflict, and as the artist Michael John Bobak says, “All progress takes place outside the comfort zone.” While he’d rather be known for his art instead of pithy quotes, we can’t deny the truth in the statement.

Conflict can amplify creativity… just don’t allow it to derail the conversation.

Bill Keaggy contributed to this post. Image by Chris Sabor on Unsplash.