Ask the Expert: Top 5 Tips for Diffusing Conflict During Online Stakeholder Engagement

Posted by Britney Blomquist on June 28, 2021

With 5 Bonus Tips for Navigating a High Emotion Situation with a Stakeholder

Joining Jambo for this Q&A blog is Kim Hyshka, Principal at Dialogue Partners. Kim has been a leader in the field of civic engagement and public participation for over a decade (for Kim’s complete bio, visit the About Dialogue Partners page).

“We specialize in high stakes, high impact projects. We open possibility, cultivate collaboration and spark change through dialogue. We involve the community, bringing people together to facilitate conversations that make an impact.” – Dialogue Partners

In today’s blog, we’ll cover:

There are different levels of conflict

It’s important to start by acknowledging that there are different levels of conflict. Below are five levels of conflict escalation (numbered from 1 being low and 5 being high) along with a few of their key features:

  1. Productive - Share the problem but disagree on how to resolve
  2. Personalized - Personal attacks, non-communication
  3. Destructive - Proliferation of issues, digging up the past
  4. Hostile - Open hostility
  5. Polarized - Talking to everyone else but each other, total non-communication

It’s important that you identify where you are on the scale and plan for effective engagement processes within those different levels.

For today’s blog, we’re talking about the lower levels of conflict.

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Q: How do we define/identify conflict?

In their book Working Through Conflict, Folger, Poole, and Stutman define conflict as the "interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals." (Working Through Conflict, 1993).

Webster’s dictionary defines conflict as a “competitive or opposing action of incompatible views” or a “mental struggle resulting in incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or external or internal demands.”

At Dialogue Partners, we’re inspired by the Sprott School of Business Professional Certificate in Conflict Management Program. We have adapted our identification of conflict as, “conflict is a signal that something needs to change.”

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How Dialogue Partners reframes conflict

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We reframe it in a way that matches how people view conflict.

A lot of times, it’s our own perception of the conflict and our own perception of our stakeholder’s emotions that can be harder to deal with than the actual conflict. Instead, I suggest viewing conflict as a sign that “they really care” because if you can look at that stakeholder who is yelling, or who is crying or who is frustrated and think, “Wow—This matters so much; look how much they care about this topic” instead of seeing it as, “here they go again. They are being illogical or overreacting,” you’ll be able to work through the conflict more effectively.

As soon as you put those labels (i.e. illogical or overreacting) on someone else’s behaviour, it’s going to be hard to work through conflict because you’ve already decided that they’re going to be difficult to work with.

When you’re able to view conflict as “they really care,” all of a sudden, as a practitioner, you can approach the situation way differently because now you’ve got stuff to work with. You can view this as a sign that “we have people, they care, and we’ve already identified that something isn’t working, so we’re going to have to come up with something else.” This work is really an opportunity to look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.

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How we approach conflict has a huge impact on weather or not we're actually going to be successful

It’s time to stop using the words “how to manage conflict” or “manage people’s emotions.” I don’t know about you, but anytime I’ve tried to manage someone’s emotions, it does not go well.

When we take the approach to control a situation or manage people when they’re already in a state of high emotion or there’s controversy, we generally just agitate it further instead of diffusing it.

Instead of using the words manage or control and conflict or emotions, I focus on “how we can harness,” “how can we embrace,” “how can we channel” that energy into something useful and productive.

Your perspective will make a difference, and you can use all the tips you want, but I don’t think any of them will be overly effective unless you can come in with the perspective of:

  • Your stakeholder's care
  • When they are in a state of high emotion, it's because it matters to them
  • These states of high emotion are a sign that someone needs to change
  • And now you have an opportunity to use this energy and channel it into something that is effective

Now that we’ve discussed perspective, it’s time for the tips. The tips I’m sharing today are easy to implement so that they’re useable for anyone, even people who are new to dealing with conflict.

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5 tips for diffusing conflict during online stakeholder engagement

Tip #1: Start the session by setting expectations for how everyone will participate respectfully in the online space

Especially when I know there’s going to be conflict, I start my sessions with an exercise called: “What do we need from one another to participate in a productive conversation?”

This exercise is a game-changer because the people on edge just need that prompt and are more willing to participate in a productive manner. While some people don’t care about this discussion, at least you have had a group conversation about it to lean on if you need it.

In this exercise, we cover:

  • What do you need from me as your host of the session?
  • What do you need from others to ensure you feel safe and comfortable?
  • What do you need from yourself to participate and have a productive experience?

We do this exercise in the online session before we get started with any of our content. I open the discussion with something like, “ok, everyone, we have all been to these online forums where it can become really overwhelming, and there’s a lot of yelling. I don’t want any of that, and I bet you don’t want any of that here today. Instead, let’s talk about how this is a safe, comfortable and respectful place. But remember, respect means different things for different people. So, what do you need from me, yourself and other people?”

I often show a slide of the agreements and then encourage people to share their perspectives in the chat. If you need the conversation to move faster, you can also pre-populate a list of things you know will likely come up and then, if your platform has this feature, use the annotate feature to highlight or add checkmarks to keep things moving along.

You can also type the agreements into the chat or on a Google doc so everyone can see them and refer back to them if things start to go sideways.

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Tip #2: That fastest way to reduce conflict  is by creating connection

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I often hear people say, “I’m like Teflon, and I can handle anything! People can throw anything at me, and it just bounces off.” I think that is such an ineffective view because it rarely diffuses conflict. For sure, you can take it, but are you going to make any change as a result? Conflict rarely goes away by deflecting it; a more effective way is to build connection by leaning into empathy.

Instead of deflecting it, when working with conflict online or in-person, we need to use our empathetic muscles and feel it. We have all been annoyed and wildly frustrated before; we all know what that feels like, so feel it, understand it, but then make sure that you don’t hang onto it. This is effective because when stakeholders see that you get it or that you at least appreciate where they’re at, they’re much more willing to connect with you because you’ve recognized what they are experiencing.

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Tip #3: Use the tools available to you online, and also make it clear when you are using them

The chat box can be your friend, and it can be your nemesis when working with conflict. On the friend side, the chat feature allows people who would never feel comfortable going to the microphone a safe space to type their perspectives. The downside happens online when we do not need to look at people because this is when keyboard warriors can emerge. In this situation, you might be trying to have a central conversation; meanwhile, a whole fight has erupted simultaneously in the chat box.

To help you use the chat box more effectively, remember that you can turn the chat on and off in many online platforms. When an open discussion is happening, turn the chat on so people can interact both verbally and on the chat. But when you want to get to a presentation portion or want to focus the discussion, turn the chat off for a while, but make sure you announce it.

To do this, you can lead with “everyone, we want to share some information, and we want to make sure it’s not distracting for people, so we’re going to turn that chat off for a period of time. Then we’ll turn it back on again when we get to further discussion.”

By using the online tool and naming when and how you are using the tool, people know what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like you’re losing transparency, but it still helps you to facilitate online discussions more effectively.

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Tip #4: Utilize the breakout rooms

If a large group discussion is getting hot, the emotions and the conflict will just continue to rise unless you do something to diffuse the energy. So, if you notice there’s conflict rising, utilize the breakout rooms.

For example, you might say, “everyone, I’m noticing there’s a whole lot going on, and there’s a lot of things that people want to say. So, here’s what I’m going to suggest. Let’s head into some breakout rooms for 10 minutes.” There may be pushback at this suggestion, so ensure you’re being transparent and let participants know that you’ll all be coming back together to debrief. Then, you just open up those breakout rooms, and people will mostly go.

These breakout room sessions are effective because people want to tell you why they’re upset and angry, so this allows people to speak and then come back together.

Q: How do you split people into breakout rooms?

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This will depend on the type of session you’re running, but as we talked about in our last blog when we discussed tips on planning an online event, you need an IT person, and you should have had a discussion with your team beforehand about whether these breakout sessions will be randomized or organized.

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When dealing with conflict, I suggest trying to get people with differing perspectives in the same room to help avoid groupthink. By putting people who have the same perspectives, especially when they are around heated feelings, you’re amplifying those feelings.

So, the more you know about your participants and their perspectives, the more effective you’ll be at assigning their groups. Now, we don’t always know these things, and in those situations, you go random, and you hope for the best.

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Tip #5: Invite participants to turn on their cameras

If people are able to use a webcam, inviting everyone to turn on their cameras makes a big difference.

Commonly, people won’t have their cameras on initially, but I continue to encourage them throughout because I notice that people will turn them on during the smaller breakout sessions. When they come back to the larger group, they often still have those cameras on, so I take that moment to acknowledge how great it is to see their faces.

Without being pushy or annoying, offer a few nudges throughout the session and invite people to turn their cameras on.

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Q: What can you do to diffuse the situation when a stakeholder is in a state of high emotion?

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Well, you can hit mute.

Joking aside, we have a couple of options in this moment that I would highly recommend before opting for the mute button.

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1. Give the person one or two minutes to talk

Sometimes, you need to give the stakeholder who is in a state of high emotion the space to talk for a little bit so that they can share what’s important for them because cutting them off right away will not help the situation.

I suggest giving the person about a minute and a half to two minutes (at the most) to talk because, after this amount of time, the rest of the room wants to move on. While I would never suggest people setting a timer and telling the person they have 90 seconds to get it all out, giving people a little space and time to share what’s important to them is helpful.

This can be challenging as you need to balance letting that person share what’s important to them while being in service to the rest of the room. In these situations, when someone is in a state of high emotion, this is when your facilitator or your lead person really needs to step into their facilitation role because there’s a fine balance here.

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2. Listen to what they share and use their name when you address them

When you do intervene, use their name. Often, when we are in a state of high emotion, we aren’t going to hear you, but as soon as we use names, it helps bring attention and focus. This is a big benefit to the online world because, generally, everyone has their names posted. So, say their name fairly loudly and then quickly jump into an empathetic response.

For example, “Britney, you have shared so much with us, and it sounds like you are incredibly frustrated. I’m going to just…” and then you’re going to quickly summarize a few of the things they have shared.

Lead with a name, follow with an empathetic response and then you need to decide on the best next step for your situation. Do you need to totally shut this person down? “Here are the things I’ve heard you say…. And now I need to move onto someone else.” Or is there a facilitator role here where you need to stay with the person for a little bit—this is an in-the-moment decision.

But, for sure:

  • Say their name
  • Give them a change to speak for a minute and a half to say what they want to say
  • Consciously listen and be present with what they are sharing

You need to really listen so that when you say their name and you offer an empathetic response, you can actually respond to what they've shared.

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3. Do not ask them to "calm down"

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There is nothing that triggers highly emotional people more than asking them to calm down or be logical. At all costs, avoid the “just calm down” response and instead:

  • Use their name
  • Show empathy
  • Name the emotion you see them sharing and some of the content they shared

While this might feel counterintuitive, and it might feel like you're letting them just continue, but you're actually looking for a productive pause in that energy where you can bring it down just a little bit. This is much more effective than yelling or telling them to calm down.

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4. Last case scenario, you can choose to mute the person

If we’ve gotten to a point where they have spoken for 3-4 minutes and will not calm down, or we’re in a place where they’ve crossed a line, you have a few options.

You can mute them first, which will allow you to start speaking. However, if they keep coming off mute and continue to yell or cross the line, most platforms will allow you to remove them from the session altogether.

Now, before I would ever remove someone, I would make sure that I say something first. For example, “Britney, I know you have a lot to say, and this really matters to you. I also need to be in service to everyone else here, so what I’m going to ask is…” If you’ve said these two or three times and that person is still being belligerent, then you need to make the call on the next step, which might include removing them from the session, though I would only use this as a last case scenario once you’ve tried everything else.

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5. Ask for a silent pause

Another tool you can use to diffuse conflict is to ask for silence and reflection. This is where you say to the group, “everyone, this has been an incredibly lively back and forth discussion. I need a moment to think about everything that’s been said and think about the best way to move forward. I’m going to call for a minute of silence.” And then you hit mute all (don’t ask for it, just do it). Then share something like, “I just want to give everyone a chance to think about what they’ve heard and what’s going on and how we can best move forward.”

This gives you, as the facilitator, some breathing space and the participants some space as well. This is another benefit to online engagement because, at in-person events, you don’t have a mute all button.

Then, when you’re ready to come back, let everyone know the next move. For example, “ok group, I’ve thought this through, and what I think will serve us next is…” Make sure you let people know what’s coming next. Remember, high emotions and surprises don’t mix well, so lead everyone through what’s happening and what’s coming next.

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Preparing for your online session: plan a practice run

To help you and your team feel prepared for these types of situations, run a practice session with your team before the live session. Get some of your colleagues who know your stakeholders and how they might react to role play as them and say the things you anticipate might come up in the session.

This run through helps you practice what you can do in each situation and allows you and your team to navigate these spaces more effectively.

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Q: How can Dialogue Partner help people on their journey?

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When it comes to hosting a session where you anticipate conflict, it’s often highly beneficial to have a neutral third-party present that operates as the face of your session, and this is something our team offers. We regularly work in high stakes, high controversy situations, so whether you’re looking for help in planning a session or for support in hosting a session, we have a lot of experience in these spaces and would love to work with your organization.

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Stay tuned: Dialogue Changes Everything

For future reading, stay tuned! Kim is writing a book called: Dialogue Changes Everything and it will be released this fall. If you want to learn more about how communication and the way we interact designs our life and designs our experience with others, be sure to grab a copy once it’s released.

To make sure you stay updated and don’t miss the release, sign up for the Dialogue Partners mailing list.

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Topics: Stakeholder Engagement, Stakeholder Issues, Stakeholder Relationship Management