Faceless Civility: How to Get Along Online

I read a blog post this week where the writer, an internationally known expert and best-selling author, criticized some followers for disagreeing with what he had to say.

First, I felt his attitude was so arrogant that I unsubscribed from his blog. Second, I’m still surprised when I see people emotionally reacting and saying things online that they would not say face-to-face.

You would think we would have learned to be more civil online by now. I remember in 1993 talking to my boss about creating a class on email etiquette. Five years later after starting my own business, I was hired to teach a class on emotional intelligence for email writers. Yet I’m still hearing horror stories of people being fired by email, ideological wars taking place on company Intranets, and blog comments serving more to vent emotions than share points of view.

With many companies decreasing travel, technology-facilitated communication is on the rise. Social media isn’t just for sharing family pictures. Products are being developed, sales are opened and closed, and crucial problems resolved online using Facebook-type platforms, Wikis and Ning-based communities and internal Twitter-like programs.

Yet virtual teams still consist of people talking to each other. There has to be rules and agreements to get the best results. If not, conflicts often deteriorate into counter attacks. Even non-emotional statements are interpreted poorly, triggering our fingers to blast out defensive tirades and pushing send before cooling down.

Some of the best resources I’ve seen for creating agreements and handling conflicts online come from Stewart Levine. I’ve read two of his books, Collaboration 2.0: Technology and Best Practices for Successful Collaboration in a Web 2.0 World (Happy About, 2008) and Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict Into Collaboration(Berrett-Koehler, 2009).

Getting to Resolution outlines the ten principles underlying the approach Stewart calls “resolutionary thinking.” Stewart then provides a detailed seven-step process for using this new mindset to resolve conflicts in a way that fosters dignity and integrity, optimizes resources, and allows all concerns to be voiced, honored, and woven into the resolution. He shows how these steps work online in Collaboration 2.0.

Here are some tips from Stewart’s work.

Brain Tip #1: Start with “an attitude of resolution.” For what purpose are you speaking? Before you type out your ideas or formulate a response, consider what everyone wants to happen—the shared vision—and what everyone wants in their hearts to create. When you only speak from your mind, you tend to focus on excuses, personal reasoning and finding fault with other people’s ideas and actions.

When instead, you speak with your heart and mind—and seek to meet others with both heart and mind—you are more likely to remember you are dealing with humans who are also emotionally tied to the end results and to being heard and respected. If you focus on resolution and long-term relationships instead of short-term wins, you are more likely to create and sustain collaborative relationships.

Brain Tip #2: Recognize and describe what you are feeling and why. Although people feel strong emotions, they rarely articulate what they are feeling and why in their responses. If you put this reality on the table, your emotions and the sources become factors that can be used toward finding a resolution. There was a great bit of advice one doctor gave to another in a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “Don’t try to fix him. Just tell him how you feel.” Although you might feel vulnerable sharing at this level, the act actually eases defensiveness in others.

Also, when you articulate what you are feeling, you can move toward releasing the hold emotions have over your thoughts. You can finally feel some completion with the issue. From here, you can hear other people’s stories and perspectives, honoring the diversity they bring to the table. This takes courage, but the results are definitely worth the discomfort you feel with the process.

Brain Tip #3: Create a “third body.” Once you tell your story, share the source of your reactions, and listen to what others need to share, you can begin to work toward a vision of what will work instead of trying to resolve what isn’t working. When you move into this space of creativity, people come together with a true sense of collaboration. The energy is invigorating and productive. The sum is greater than the parts, as if something is happened that is bigger than any of one person. What’s interesting is that few groups can reach this state until they have moved through the fire of conflict into a new state of relationship. This is the prize. It’s worth working for. I recommend Stewart’s books to help you experience this magical state for yourself and with your teams.

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