Over the past twenty years, we’ve worked with conflicts in workplaces, neighbourhoods, committees, charities, and in commercial settings, and have seen first-hand how much of it has been directly caused or exacerbated by technology… especially when it comes to social media!
In this article, written to accompany our recent webinar, we’ll be looking at how technology can make disputes worse, but also how it can potentially provide additional opportunities for resolution.
So, to begin with, lets look at how technology can actually initiate or worsen disputes:
• Simply posting disparaging comments about others online, either because they’re looking for confrontation or because they think that their profile is private
• Retweeting, liking, or sharing disparaging comments, implying that they agree with them
• Including or excluding others in groups, discussions, or online events
• Misinterpreting or misreading what others have said – projecting what they believe the other person is thinking on to their actions
• Deflecting and pretending everything is OK, while holding back on what actually needs to be said – avoidance is so much easier when you can just log out of the app or ignore your phone!
We’ve found these factors particularly common in neighbourhood disputes, or in conflicts between families, where parties will have access to each other’s social media.
However, that’s not to say that they’re not prevalent in workplace disputes either, where office gossip and drama can also spill over on to Facebook or Instagram!
And, of course, besides the spiralling dispute affecting morale and productivity, it can also have some other undesirable side-effects.
For example, it could lead to increased social media usage at work as the dispute remains on their mind or, commercially, it could also reflect badly on the company. Fights between employees could become public and available for everyone to see, or private opinion might not be distinguished from their work. This is often why many organisations ask employees to put disclaimers into their social media bios, usually something along the lines of, “Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer”.
However, in recent years, we have seen a surge of mediation providers harnessing technology to provide further opportunities for conflict resolution. This includes using Skype, webchats, Zoom, using AI or, in some extreme cases, using robots!
And, while it’s great that mediation is more accessible to people in dispute, we must ask… do these methods actually work?
And, to break the answer down into two parts, YES if…
• You consider that it’s still addressing the issue
Of course, clearing the air in any form is better than not doing it at all. Apart from in extreme circumstances, attempting resolution would always be better than leaving the dispute to fester and worsen.
• Resolution is attempted in an appropriate forum
Rather than hashing it out one angry email or tweet at a time (thus prolonging it), online mediation brings them together in the present moment, where their sole focus is on resolving the issue at hand.
• It is an appropriate dispute
Commercial disputes that deal with facts, figures, and evidence generally lend themselves better to online mediation. In other cases, where there are a lot more feelings or emotions that need to be addressed, this would generally require a more human touch.
On the other hand, we would advise NO if…
• Privacy can’t be ensured
For example, is anyone else in the room while using Skype? Can you be sure that it’s not being recorded? Is the connection secure? With confidentiality being one of the main pillars of mediation, this should be guaranteed throughout the process.
• The dispute is of an interpersonal nature
For more emotional disputes, we would always recommend that the participants are in the same room, where they can see the whites of each other’s eyes. We find that, when these disputes are dealt with online, they become watered down and the direct communication that should take place generally doesn’t. Other aspects of mediation, including empathy and reframing, also don’t translate as well.
So, weighing up the above pros and cons, our final advice would be that it entirely depends on the dispute.
Of course, it’s great when mediation, which has proven to be a successful method of conflict resolution, becomes more available and accessible.
However, it does also need to be appropriate in order to provide the parties with the best possible service in order to re-open communication, rebuild dialogue, and move forward with an agreement to improve the relationship.