Managing Conflict in Virtual Meetings

This article was inspired by a question posed by a client in a recent virtual workshop. She asked:

If you are part of a virtual meeting and there is a conflict, argument, etc., how does one handle that as a host or an attendee of that meeting?

This question is extremely difficult to answer because it depends on the situation. There are so many variables:  power structure, relationships, culture, who’s in the room, who’s leading the meeting. All of these and more come into play when faced with an emotional situation during meetings.

How adept you are at handling any sort of uncomfortable situation also plays a role.

I know “it depends” isn’t a very satisfying answer, so let me offer some insight.

From a big-picture perspective, if you want to learn about managing heated conversations, we recommend reading (or taking a workshop) on Crucial Conversations. I took the course a few years ago, and it has helped me navigate some sticky situations at home, in the office, and in the training room.

According to the book description, the 3rd edition has recommendations for communicating “more effectively across digital mediums.” I haven’t read the new edition, so I can’t speak about it, but I trust the writing crew over at Crucial Learning (previously VitalSmarts).

Now let’s get back to the question at hand.

Conflict Isn’t Always Bad

Remember, not all conflict is bad. While a disagreement might be uncomfortable in the moment it’s happening, allowing the conversation to play out can lead to positive results when handled appropriately. Here are just a few benefits of productive conflict.

  • Awareness that a problem exists
  • Better results through exploration of new ideas
  • Avoidance of the “we’ve always done it this way” roadblock
  • Getting unstuck from old thinking
  • Strengthening relationships by recognizing mutual goals and shared values
  • Leadership skills develop

All of these benefits, of course, assume that the conflict isn’t the result of a bad actor who just likes to stir the pot.

Managing Conflict During Virtual Meetings

Here are a few recommendations for helping you manage conflict when it erupts. Many of these ideas work in face-to-face situations as well as virtual and hybrid.

  • Pause before responding. Give yourself a moment to breathe and think so that you avoid a knee-jerk reaction.
  • Be careful not to interrupt because that can escalate the situation. This is, of course, difficult in the virtual space because it’s so easy to unintentionally speak over someone. If it happens, acknowledge the interruption, and make space for the other person to speak.
  • Stick to the agenda by saying that taking time to discuss X would derail the meeting too much.
  • If you’re in a position to do so, ask that the conversation be moved to another time with the appropriate people.
  • Sometimes you can acknowledge the emotion. “I hear you. You’re frustrated about X.” Then proceed to address the issue or not depending on what’s right for the situation. Easier said than done, I know.
  • Sometimes you can discuss the emotion. This is different than acknowledging them in the previous bullet. Discussing emotions can sound like this: “You’re upset about X, and I’m guessing you’re not the only one. Does anyone else want to share their feelings about it?” Addressing the emotions head-on by expanding to the group can diffuse the situation because one of two things will happen.
    • Others agree, and they’ll take the pressure off you, giving you time to figure out your next move.
    • Others don’t agree, and they take the pressure off you having to deal with it.
  • Take a moment to analyze facial expressions and body language. Keep in mind that nonverbals are extremely difficult to read accurately in a virtual situation. That’s true of your facial expressions as well as theirs. This means two things for you:
    • Work to keep your own virtual presence bright. If you have what we call a “thinking face” (others refer to it as RBF), recognize that you may need to work harder than others to maintain a pleasant look on your face.
    • The other person may not be self-aware of their virtual presence, and you may not be able to accurately read the situation.

Managing conflict in the moment can be scary and uncomfortable. Using these techniques can help you develop the skills it takes to turn challenging situations into opportunities for growth.

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About the Author: Greg Owen-Boger

Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now vice president. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches and holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s founder, Dale Ludwig.

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