Remote work has some sweet advantages. For example, you may be reading this in your house slippers. (Although, I may be projecting on this point since I’m writing it in mine.) Happily, more pertinent benefits include flexibility, increased productivity, and a better work-life balance. Yet, since we humans are still doing all of this work together, even though we aren’t all doing it in the same space, conflicts do arise. This happens despite—and, in some cases, because of—team members’ physical distance. We’ve reached into our experience over the last few years of this transition to share a key strategy for resolving conflict among distanced workers.
Clear and timely communication has always been the cornerstone of conflict resolution. This truism becomes even more critical with remote workers. Without face-to-face interactions, it is easy for misunderstandings to arise and tensions to escalate. At In-Accord, we’ve seen new flavors of conflict that probably didn’t have a name before 2020. (I officially coin the term “Remote Derailment” to fill the gap.)
Here is the key communication strategy to get things back on track: if there’s a twist of tension embedded in your written messages, don’t hit “send.” We at In-Accord are speaking from experience, and even to our disadvantage. Email has been a great boon to conflict professionals’ caseloads since it became widely used in the late 1990s, so we empathize with the desire to write and send the message. People share emotionally-laden communications in written form because it’s much easier to take cover behind an email than it is to make a call or meet face-to-face. Unfortunately, taking the shot from behind the protective shield of your keyboard will cost you more time and greater upset because your reader will fill the sterile written words on their screen with their interpretations of your tone, intentions, and overall affect. Though we already know this, it is hard for most of us not to type out messages in a logical and self-satisfied way, especially because the alternative of direct discussion can be so intimidating.
The heart of the problem is that most people are conflict-averse. Given this, the apparent path of least resistance is to send a written shot across the other’s bow, showing them that if they follow our train of logic, see how strongly we feel about it, and follow us to our “obvious” solutions, then the conflict will dissipate. I wish it were so. But, we didn’t use one-way missives to reach the astounding heights that humanity has achieved over the last 200,000 years. Instead, we have emerged in relation to each other.
Think about that: we mostly get entangled in conflicts with those with whom we are in an active relationship. Yes, nearly everybody with whom you have a conflict is also someone with whom you share an interdependency. You need something from them, they need something from you. While this complex interplay is what gets you into a conflict, it is also what gets you out of it. That is, recognizing the relational aspect and your dependencies on each other. I’m sorry to say, you can’t short-circuit all of this through the medium of a keyboard or voice-to-text. You must do it with your voice, eye contact, inflection, and heart. Your colleagues can only see and feel all of this when you’re brave enough to step up and engage with them.
So, the next time your pointer finger hovers over the send button, pause. Then, schedule a phone, in-person, or remote one-on-one meeting.