How to Handle Conflict on Remote Teams
Conflict is a scary beast we encounter periodically through our personal and professional lives.
Like all perceived threats, our natural inclinations are to either flee or fight, neither of which is particularly useful in interpersonal conflict. However, they’re likely the only two responses you’ve ever learned.
Sure, you maybe got a “use your words” lesson in kindergarten, but a person can go through school and several jobs before they ever get any training on conflict resolution. And while there’s plenty of material on in-person conflict resolution, there aren’t as many resources for remote teams.
As the HR manager for a primarily remote company, my challenge has been to address this knowledge gap and find practical methods for my remote teammates to use. The following guide is the result of two years worth of experiments I’ve done with my own remote team, conveniently packaged to help jumpstart your own conflict resolution journey.
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The core reason conflict is so emotionally charged is rooted in the fear of the unknown. Think about when you’re in a dark room and you can barely make out the objects around you. Your imagination starts to go in all kinds of directions as you’re trying to grasp some semblance of familiarity.
The same thing happens when you’re in conflict. There are so many unknowns when it comes to the other person: how they’ll respond, whether you’ll be ignored, or if you’ll be taken seriously. On a remote team, even more unknowns and roadblocks can pile onto already stressful situations: different time zones and work schedules, cultural differences, language barriers, and so on.
Because the feeling of uncertainty is so uncomfortable, the natural inclination is to try to relieve it in some way. Most of the time, these tactics seems like solutions, but they can actually make the situation worse.
|Trap||What you think you’re doing||What you’re *actually* doing|
“I’m taking the high road.”
Convincing yourself the situation and/or person isn’t worth your time and energy.
Seeking to feel superior to the other person and as though they have no control over you.
Keeping the peace and not stirring up trouble unnecessarily.
Downplaying the impact the person’s actions are having as well as delegitimizing your own feelings and needs.
“It’s clearly their fault, not mine.”
Putting blame on the party that has wronged you.
Putting all blame on the other person and not acknowledging your part in the conflict.
These tactics provide temporary relief, but since the conflict itself was not resolved, the situation can sit and fester. The longer it goes on, the more the relationship erodes and the possibility of repair becomes more dismal. In general, poor working relationships tend to negatively influence other workplace problems, such as productivity, morale, and trust in leadership.
Unique remote communication challenges
Since remote work is the future, it’s crucial for these teams to understand the unique challenges remote communication channels present, especially when it comes to approaching conflict. Depending on which remote communication tools you’re using, you’re making trade-offs about what information you have available and what is lost.
Loss of in-person signals
When you’re talking to someone in person, you can look for signs in their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on. Think about when you’ve been in trouble with a teacher, your parent, or some other authority figure. Did they cross their arms, lower their gaze, or say your full name in a stern voice? Something they did indicated there was a problem. When you’re sending an email or IM, you lose that non-verbal information.
Loss of context
With information missing, multiple interpretations of the same message are possible. Think about a time you read an email one way, then showed it to your coworker and they read it entirely differently. Our guesses about others’ intentions are often rooted in our own experiences and perceptions. Unless you actively practice and know someone well enough to “walk a mile in their shoes,” it’s hard to see something from someone else’s point of view. Combine this loss of context with poor guessing, and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster. This is why it’s critical to have a working understanding of what you are gaining and losing by selecting one remote communication channel over the other.
Pro Tip: Just ask
If you even get the slightest hint there is a miscommunication, just ask. Send a quick IM, like, “Hey, toward the end of the video call, you got quiet. Wanted to check if you agreed with the final decision or if you have something you wanted to bring up.
It is crucial for remote teams to create an environment of openness and honesty. It does no good to say “Yes, everything’s fine” when it really isn’t. “Fine” never means fine — I’ve aimed to remove the word from my vocabulary.
Each remote communication channel has its pluses and minuses.
Text-based messaging provides no in-person signals
Can cause slow-downs between replies
Long back-and-forth chains can waste time and cause confusion
Great for announcements or summaries where little or no response is required.
Text-based messaging provides no in-person signals — emoticons, GIFs and memes can only do so much
Time zone differences
Long back-and-forth chats can waste time and cause confusion
Works well for real-time conversations, but keep in mind the other person’s time zone and work schedule (e.g., don’t start a conversation when they are getting ready to sign off). Use the rule of 15: If you get to 15 lines of chat and the person doesn’t get it, set up a call.
Loss of body language and facial expressions
Potential for poor reception
Potential for noisy background
When possible, try to take a calls in quiet and distraction-free rooms. Give the person your full attention.
Potential for poor internet connection
Unnatural lags between speakers
Potential for noisy background
Take video calls in a quiet, distraction-free room. Give the person your full attention by shutting down all apps and tools. If you’re taking notes, tell the person so they know you’re looking away for a reason.
Lightweight conflict resolution process
There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to approaching conflict in a remote setting. However, the remote setting does require you to be more in tune with this skillset and much more proactive.
1. Name the thing
Mark Baril, a mediator who works with our team, taught us to ask ourselves, “What is triggering me?” When assessing a conflict, look at what it is about the situation that’s really bothering you. It’s important to note that the person may or may not have intended to cause harm, but you perceived their words or actions as a threat. While the situations can vary, Mark nailed down six common triggers we are most susceptible to:
You’re triggered when you perceive that someone is questioning your intelligence or skills.
Example: During a Google Hangout, someone questions the direction of your project. Does this person think I don’t know what I am doing? Or the opposite case, imposter syndrome. Maybe I don’t know what I am doing and it is obvious to the person?
You’re triggered when someone appears to be excluding you in some way (from a group, an event, a committee, etc.) or implies you’re not a good companion.
Example: You’re chatting a with coworker over IM and he asks if you’ll be joining the brainstorming meeting in five minutes. You never got the invite. Do they think my opinions don’t matter?
You’re triggered when someone appears to be trying to control you, impose upon you, or threaten your self-reliance.
Example: Your boss sends you an email asking if your portion of the project is complete when it is due next week. Does she think I am not reliable?
You’re triggered when you perceive that someone is threatening your tangible or intangible assets, including power, position, economic worth, and attractiveness.
Example: During a hiring call, you and the CEO disagree about which candidate to hire. You were told you’d make the final decision, but you’re receiving a lot of pushback. After the call, your CEO pings you, insisting you reconsider. Does my CEO not trust my judgement to pick the best candidate?
You’re triggered when you perceive that someone is questioning your trustworthiness or dependability.
Example: You take blocks of time each week to do focused work. You turn off your IM and don’t check email. Your manager insists you remain on IM and answer email within the hour of receiving it during work hours. Does she know how important this time is to me? Does she not trust me to get my work done?
You’re triggered when someone appears to be questioning your moral values or integrity.
Example: You woke up very ill. You emailed your team to let them know you’re out sick, but you forgot to send in your monthly report. The next day, you get an IM from your manager asking for your report and questioning whether you were really sick. Does he think I am lying?
Being able to “name the thing” that’s bothering you is powerful, as it helps remove the emotional charge from the situation and lets you view it more objectively.
2. Be curious
Once you have a better grasp of why you were affected, it’s crucial to turn your attention to the other person. At this point, your perceptions of their actions are based more on assumptions than facts. Demonstrating curiosity and wanting to understand the other person’s side creates a safe space for the other person to be welcomed into the conversation.
One of my teammates, Barbara Maniar, is particularly talented in this area — whatever the issue, Barbara’s main focus is asking “who, what, why, when, where, and how” before she starts to offer any kind of fix or suggestion. Her “question first, solution later” approach is particularly useful in a conflict situation. Lowering defenses and decreasing frustrations can open a two-way communication channel. You can’t solve a conflict alone; you need the other person on board.
A few examples of how demonstrating curiosity can diffuse conflict:
Hey, during the meeting you seemed frustrated. Is everything OK?
I read your email and I think I may have misunderstood it — can we talk through your takeaways?
I didn't get the report I asked for yesterday — did something cause a delay?
3. Say your side
At this point you have named your trigger and attempted to understand what’s going on with the other person.
Hopefully, you’ve created a space where you feel comfortable expressing the impact the other person had on you, and they can be more receptive. Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication method (NVC) is an effective approach — he argues the root of all conflicts are unresolved feelings and unmet needs.
The NVC method is broken down into four parts:
State a clear observation of what the person did that you didn’t like.
Example: “When you cancel our one-on-ones 10 minutes before they are going to start, I feel frustrated as my need to have my time respected isn’t met. I’d like to request if you need to cancel our meeting, please ping me on IM to let me know the day before.”
State how you feel about what they have done. Feelings are influenced by needs that are either met or unmet.
Example: “The last two times I’ve asked you for feedback, I didn’t receive it by the agreed upon date. I feel anxious as my need to include executive input is vital to ensuring my project aligns with high-level company goals. I’d like to request we set up a call to discuss a reasonable feedback timeline that will work for us both.”
Make clear what need of yours was not met.
Example: “Yesterday when you asked me to generate a sales report with little notice, I felt annoyed as my need for consideration of my busy schedule wasn’t met. I ask that if you need a sales report, to either give me a day’s notice, or if last-minute meetings pop up, I can show you how to pull the information from the database so you don’t have to wait for me. What would you prefer?”
End with a clear request of what you would like this person to do. Tell the person what they can do to contribute to your well-being. Tell them what you want them to start doing, not what you want them to stop doing.
Example: “In the past two weeks during our weekly team meetings, you’ve switched my project priorities around and I feel confused about how I should direct my own project team. My need to understand your high-level direction is not being met and I’d like to request we talk one-on-one to ensure we’re aligned on project direction.”
Pro Tip: Video Chat
If you can’t talk in person, opt for video conferencing. The more you can replicate in-person communication, the better.
The main work-related benefit to improving your conflict resolution skills is becoming more approachable. Even if you’re not working in the same room with someone, the need to be listened to and understood in order to move past a conflict remains essential to a healthy and productive work environment.
In a remote setting, approachability means teammates don’t hesitate to ping you with questions or concerns. They know if there is a disagreement, you’ll set up a follow-up call and really listen to what they have to say. Problems get solved faster, productivity isn’t stalled, and creativity is allowed to flourish.