Managing Conflict in a Remote Environment

How do you determine the best time or way to convey your concerns?

As if communication with team members, bosses, and other outsiders wasn’t already challenging enough, add in the inability to walk into someone’s office, go out for coffee when things get heated, or call a meeting to squash rumors that might be circulating. In today’s environment, separated from those you work alongside or often spend time with, communication is even more impaired and frustrating.

It can be tough for most people, even in the best of circumstances, to deal with others about things that are difficult or upsetting. Even when you might want to simply “give feedback," you might hesitate to do so because you want to avoid conflict in general. This concern is exacerbated when you are limited in the ability to see someone in person — when you can’t see or be with the person to resolve any misunderstandings or have the opportunity to work in a more personal sense.

But if the conflict exists, going without addressing it can cause issues too. You might find that you ruminate on your feelings about the person, and your thoughts continue to be drawn to what they are doing or have done that upsets you. It isn’t as if not dealing with it makes it not real. It just continues to claim your attention and distract from your day.

What do you do when working or dealing in a remote environment with others — be it colleagues, friends, or family members? How do you determine the best time or way to convey your concerns?

  1. It is important to first examine where the upset is coming from. In these virtual times, it can be difficult to fully understand someone else’s intentions. Remember that many people are stressed and distressed and may not always be showing their best selves. Before you decide you are upset with them and need to set them straight, start with some compassion and objectivity about what is really going on. Are they behaving in a difficult way because of the situation, and could you possibly be getting more upset than is warranted because these times are creating difficulty for everyone? Consider your viewpoint and the person’s situation or condition before you determine the conflict is worth addressing.

  2. Assuming the negative experience is real and you must address it, prepare the person in advance via an email or phone call: “There is something I need to bring to your attention; when would be the best time to do this?” Give the person the chance to recognize that there is a situation that might be awkward or uncomfortable, and allow them to tell you when it would be best to deal with it. If they respond that they have no time at all, then you might have to push a bit harder and say that you know they are busy, but you are requesting they value the relationship with you to make the time when they can.

  1. Consider having the discussion on a technology that allows you to see the person — FaceTime with them, Zoom, or WebEx — but allow you and the person to see each other’s faces during the discussion. There are so many opportunities for miscommunication that come when you can’t see another’s body language, or response to what you are saying. Give yourselves the chance to be face-to-face rather than hiding behind a phone call.

  2. Always start by asking the person if there is anything they want to discuss with you, even though you were the one to ask for the interaction. Before you launch into your concerns or your feedback, give them a bit of space to consider a response. Many times when someone has done something to hurt you or when they have acted in a negative way toward you, they also realize they have done this. It can be a freeing experience for the person to have a chance to first say, “I think you might want to talk about when I cut you off and said unkind things in our call last Tuesday. I realized when I did it that it was rude and disrespectful. I apologize for my behavior and hope you will accept my apology.” If you give the person a chance to speak first, they have the chance to own their behavior and take responsibility for it. This is always preferable to being in a position to point out the hurtful things someone has done to you.

  3. If they don’t seem to know why you have requested time, or what you want to talk about, start by asking questions: “We had that call last Tuesday and that’s what I wanted to talk about. Was there anything that you observed during the call that might occur to you around why I wanted to talk further about it?” Again, before you proceed with negative feedback to someone, always give the person as much space as possible for them to reflect on what happened.

  4. If there is nothing forthcoming from giving the space, you want to proceed with your insights. “We had that call last Tuesday and I don’t know if you were aware of the way you presented your ideas about my position. You specifically said (fill in the words here as well as you can) and perhaps you didn’t mean it, but it came across very harshly to me.” When accusing someone else of doing something that you perceive as negative, you want to allow for the possibility that it was unintentional. Many times it is, oftentimes it isn’t, but when you confront someone with an accusation, they will often retreat and make you the problem. If you can create space for them to understand their actions and your reaction to the action, you might allow them the chance to have the “aha” moment.

  5. It’s often helpful to say that you care about the relationship with them and to point out that you are addressing this because you don’t want to have conflict or divisiveness between the two of you. Share that your intentions are positive in hoping to examine what happened together and have a set of next steps.

Then, very importantly in the virtual world, schedule a time to follow up. You don’t want to leave things hanging or misunderstandings that could come back and be difficult in the next interaction. Thank the person for listening and responding, and ask to schedule a follow-up time to check in again. It’s important not to leave things festering and continuing to upset you, but it is also important to take steps to ensure your position is clear and you are not creating even more misunderstanding.


Source: Beverly D. Flaxington, August 21 2020;

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