Conflict in Cyberspace; How to Resolve
Kali Munro, M.Ed.
Have you ever noticed how conflict can
get blown out of proportion online? What may begin as
a small difference of opinion, or misunderstanding,
becomes a major issue very quickly. Conflict can be
difficult at the best of times, but what is it about
online communication that seems to ignite “flaming”
and make conflicts more difficult to resolve?
There are a number of reasons to explain
why conflict may be heightened online. One is the absence
of visual and auditory cues. When we talk to someone
in person, we see their facial expressions, their body
language, and hear their tone of voice. Someone can
say the exact same thing in a number of different ways,
and that usually effects how we respond.
For example, someone could shout and shake
their finger at you, or they could speak gently and
with kindness. They could stand up and tower over you,
or they could sit down beside you. How you feel, interpret,
and respond to someone’s message often depends on how
they speak to you, even when it’s a difficult message
In online communications, we have no visual
or auditory cues to help us to decipher the intent,
meaning, and tone of the messenger. All we have are
the words on a computer screen, and how we hear those
words in our head. While people who know each other
have a better chance at accurately understanding each
others’ meaning and intentions, even they can have arguments
online that they would not have in-person.
Projections and Transference
While many people are convinced that how
they read an email is the only way it can be read, the
truth is, how we read a text, or view a work of art,
often says more about ourselves than it does about the
message or the messenger.
All of our communications, online and
in real-time, are filled with projections. We perceive
the world through our expectations, needs, desires,
fantasies, and feelings, and we project those onto other
people. For example, if we expect people to be critical
of us, we perceive other people’s communication as being
critical - it sounds critical to us even though it may
not be.We do the same thing online; in fact we are more
likely to project when we are online precisely because
we don’t have the visual or auditory cues to guide us
in our interpretations. How we “hear” an email or post
is how we hear it in our own heads, which may or may
not reflect the tone or attitude of the sender.
We usually can’t know from an email or
post alone whether someone is shouting, using a criticizing
tone, or speaking kindly. Unless the tone is clearly
and carefully communicated by the messenger, and/or
we are very skilled at understanding text and human
communication, we most likely hear the voice we hear,
or create in our head and react to that. This is one
of the reasons why controversial or potentially conflictual
issues are best dealt with by using great care and explicit
expressions of our tone, meaning, and intent.
Where do projections come from? They come
from our life experiences - how we’ve been treated,
how important figures in our lives have behaved, how
we felt growing up, how we responded and coped, etc.
All of us project or transfer our feelings and views
of important figures in our lives onto other people.
To take a look at your own projections
or transference with people online, think back to the
last time you felt angry at someone online. What was
it about them or their email that made you so angry?
What did you believe that they were doing to you or
someone else? How did you react internally and externally?
Was your reaction to this person (whether spoken or
not) influenced by someone or something from your past?
While it certainly happens that people are treated with
disrespect and anger online, if there are any parallels
between this experience and any of your past experiences,
it’s likely that how you felt and responded was coloured
by your past. When our past is involved, particularly
when we are unaware of it happening, we invariably project
and transfer old feelings onto the present situation.
Conflict can be heightened online by what
is known as the “disinhibition effect”, a phenomenon
that psychologist, Dr. John Suler, has written extensively
about. Suler (2002) writes, “It's well known that people
say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily
say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up,
feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly.
Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect."
It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people
share very personal things about themselves. They reveal
secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual
acts of kindness and generosity. On the other hand,
the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills
rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even
threats.” (Suler, 2002)
Suler (2002) explains that the disinihibition
effect is caused by or heightened by the following features
of online communication:
a) anonymity - no one knows who you are
on the net, and so you are free to say whatever you
want without anyone knowing it’s you who said it.
b) invisibility - you don't have to worry
about how you physically look or sound to other people
when you say something. You don't have to worry about
how others look or sound when you say something to them.
“Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression,
and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval
or indifference can slam the breaks on what people are
willing to express.” (Suler, 2002)
c) delayed reactions - you can say anything
you think and feel without censorship at any time, including
in the middle of the night when you’re most tired and
upset, leave immediately without waiting for a response,
and possibly never return - in the extreme this can
feel to someone like an emotional “hit and run”.
d) the perception that the interaction
is happening in your head - with the absence of visual
and auditory cues you may feel as though the interaction
is occurring in your head. Everyone thinks all kinds
of things about other people in their minds that they
would never say to someone’s face - online, you can
say things you’d otherwise only think.
e) neutralizing of status - in face-to-face
interactions, you may be intimidated to say something
to someone because of their job, authority, gender,
or race. Because this is not visible to you online,
you feel freer to say what ever you want to anyone.
f) your own personality style may be heightened
online - for example, if your communication style tends
to be reactive or angry, you may be more reactive or
Tips for Resolving Conflict Online
What can be done to prevent unnecessary
conflict in cyberspace? The following are tips for handling
conflict online with respect, sensitivity, and care:
Don’t respond right away
When you feel hurt or angry about an email
or post, it’s best not to respond right away. You may
want to write a response immediately, to get it off
your chest, but don't hit send! Suler recommends waiting
24 hours before responding - sleep on it and then reread
and rewrite your response the next day.
Read the post again later
Sometimes, your first reaction to a post
is a lot about how you're feeling at the time. Reading
it later, and sometimes a few times, can bring a new
perspective. You might even experiment by reading it
with different tones (matter-of-fact, gentle, non-critical)
to see if it could have been written with a different
tone in mind than the one you initially heard.
Discuss the situation with someone
who knows you
Ask them what they think about the post
and the response you plan to send. Having input from
others who are hopefully more objective can help you
to step back from the situation and look at it differently.
Suler recommends getting out of the medium in which
the conflict occurred - in this case talking to someone
in person - to gain a better perspective.
Choose whether or not you want to
You do have a choice, and you don’t have
to respond. You may be too upset to respond in the way
that you would like, or it may not be worthy of a response.
If the post is accusatory or inflammatory and the person’s
style tends to be aggressive or bullying, the best strategy
is to ignore them.
Assume that people mean well, unless
they have a history or pattern of aggression
Everyone has their bad days, gets triggered,
reacts insensitively, and writes an email without thinking
it through completely. It doesn’t mean that they don’t
have good intentions.
On the other hand, some people pick fights
no matter how kind and patient you are with them. They
distort what you say, quote you out of context, and
make all sorts of accusations all to vilify and antagonize
you. Don't take the "bait" by engaging in a struggle
with them - they'll never stop. Sometimes, the best
strategy is to have nothing more to do with someone.
Clarify what was meant
We all misinterpret what we hear and
read, particularly when we feel hurt or upset. It’s
a good idea to check out that you understood them correctly.
For example, you could ask, “When you said...did you
mean...or, what did you mean by...?” Or, “when you said...I
heard...is that what you meant?” Often times, what we
think someone said is not even close to what they meant
to say. Give them the benefit of the doubt and the chance
to be clear about what they meant.
Think about what you want to accomplish
by your communication
Are you trying to connect with this person?
Are you trying to understand them and be understood?
What is the message you hope to convey? What is the
tone you want to communicate? Consider how you can convey
Verbalize what you want to accomplish
Here are some examples, “I want to understand
what you’re saying.” “I feel hurt by some stuff that
you said. I want to talk about it in a way that we both
feel heard and understood.” “I want to find a way to
work this out. I know we don’t agree about everything
and that’s okay. I’d like to talk with you about how
I felt reading your post.” “I hope we can talk this
through because I really like you. I don’t want to be
argumentative or blaming.” Use “I” statements when sharing
your feelings or thoughts For example, “I feel...” versus
“You made me feel...” Use strictly feeling statements
Feeling statements include saying you felt hurt, sad,
scared, angry, happy, guilty, remorseful, etc. In everyday
conversations, we describe our feelings differently
than this. For example, we say that we felt “attacked”,
“threatened”, “unsafe”, or “punched in the stomach”.
When the person we’re upset with is not present, or
able to read our words, this is an understandable way
to express the full depth of our feelings and experience.
Generally though, these statements are not simply feeling
statements because they contain within them unexpressed
beliefs. For example, you believe that you were attacked
by the person, not that it just felt that way. If you
want to communicate with the person involved (or they
can read your words), it is best to stick to simple
feeling statements otherwise they will hear you as accusing
them of attacking them and be angry or upset with you.
Some people get confused why other people
get upset with them when they think they are only expressing
their feelings; usually in these cases there were unstated
beliefs expressed which the person reacted to.
Choose your words carefully and thoughtfully,
particularly when you’re upset Do your best to keep
in mind that the person will read your post alone. You
are not physically or virtually present with them to
clarify what you meant, and they can’t see the kindness
in your eyes. They must rely entirely on your words
to interpret your meaning, intent, and tone. This is
why it’s important to choose your words carefully and
thoughtfully. You can still be real and honest while
being selective. Place yourself in the other person’s
shoes How might they hear your message?
To avoid unnecessary conflict or a lot
of hurt feelings, it helps to take into account who
you’re writing to. One person might be able to hear
you say it exactly how you think it, and another person
would be threatened by that style of communication.
Think about the other person when writing your email
or post. Do your best to communicate in a way that is
respectful, sensitive, and clear to them.
People often say, to do that feels like
they’re being controlled and why shouldn’t they just
write it the way they want to. Of course you can write
it any way you want, especially online, but if you want
to communicate with this person and have them hear and
understand what you’re saying, it helps to think about
how they will hear it.
Use emoticons to express your tone
In online communication, visual and auditory
cues are replaced by emoticons, for example, smiles,
winks, and laughter. It helps to use emoticons to convey
your tone. Additionally, if you like the person, tell
them! Having a conflict or misunderstanding doesn’t
mean you don’t like the person any more, but people
often forget that reality, or don’t think to say it.
It may be most needed during a tense interaction.
Start and end your post with positive,
affirming, and validating statements
Say what you agree with, what you understand
about how they feel, and any other positive statements
at the beginning of your email. This helps set a positive
tone. End on a positive note as well.
The Paradox of Online Communication
Handling conflict constructively is hard
at the best times, and it can be even harder online.
It can take a great deal of effort, care, and thoughtfulness
to address differences, tensions, and conflicts online.
Paradoxically, some of the same things that contribute
to heightened conflict online can contribute to peaceful
resolutions as well.
The internet is an ideal place to practice
communication and conflict resolution skills. Just as
the absence of visual and auditory cues, the anonymity,
invisibility, delayed reactions, and neutralizing of
status free us to say what ever negative thing we want,
they can also free us to try new, and more positive
communication styles and to take all the time we need
to do that. As with any new technology, the internet
can be used to enhance our personal growth and relationships,
or to alienate us from each other. It’s our choice.
About the author:
Kali Munro, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist in private practice
with twenty years experience. She offers free healing
resources at her site, KaliMunro.com