Questions such as “is on online conflict resolution better than in-person?”, “what is the best way to resolve a conflict?”, and “what are the pros and cons of online conflict?”, all have answers that vary based on the situation. They are very subjective questions because none can be answered universally. That’s just the nature of conflict, it will never be the same as the last. With that being said, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn and dive deep into how we can effectively solve conflicts, because regardless of what the situation is there will always be room for improvement. A lot of what goes into conflict management (whether be online or in-person), can be subjective based on who’s involved. There are no set-in-stone techniques that will universally work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
With the increasing growth of technology comes the ability to speak with people who aren’t physically right in front of you. Society has come a long way from delivering messages on horseback. We are in an age where everything is instantaneous, where patience is lacking, and where conflicts can be solved online. This is a relatively new approach to conflict resolution, but that doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.
The greatest weakness of online conflict resolution is clear to most who’ve researched it: the lack of nonverbal cues. Kinesics, paralanguage, silence, and artifactual communication are all aspects of communication that can suffer when speaking online. While not innately detrimental, the more complex a conflict becomes, the more these tools for conflict become necessary. The media richness theory is a proponent of this ideology. It states that media can be ranked by a richness which determines how effective a medium is at accurately relaying information. According to this theory, the more ambiguous and uncertain the task, the richer the media required (Jandt 174). It goes to show that when discussing over the telephone, we cannot examine an abstract topic as well as we can face-to-face or in video chat. There are simply restrictions that can cause conflicting interpretations of an issue. The more equivocal a message, the richer the medium needs to be. If the media-rich face-to-face is the strongest form of communication, texting would be on the opposite side of that spectrum. In-person there are basically no restraints, while over the phone you can’t see the other person’s body language, through text you can’t hear their tone of voice, and in video chats you can’t physically feel the energy in the room. It is natural for humans to touch, smell, see, and hear what’s around us. The withdrawal of these feelings leads us to be self-centered, unregulated, and unable to adapt (Jandt 175). Without cues such as appearance and kinesics, social inhibitions are reduced, and we display less socially desirable behaviors. We naturally become less concerned about others and their opinions about us because, what are they going to do they are just on a computer screen?
At this point it may seem online conflict is completely inferior to face-to-face. But that is not the case. It is argued that online conflict creates an opportunity to have greater control of verbal messages. You can’t deny the freedom text messaging allows. There is an unlimited amount of time to conjure up a message and respond. That can be negative with the abuse of the loose guidelines, as it can drag a conflict on forever or cause people to feel taken for granted if they aren’t regularly responded to. It can literally create a conflict in it of itself, but that doesn’t counter the freedom it brings. No matter what the conflict is, you get to decide when you tackle it… not to mention where as well.
Online conflict also provides an upgrade in context (the environment in which communication takes place). The comfort and security of a home bedroom, the relaxation provided with some soft pajamas, and the convenience that comes from the lack of strict scheduling that ensues in face-to-face negotiations, can all provide with a more welcoming and appealing experience. It provides communicators with more time and leeway to represent themselves as attractive and credible as possible. The slowed-down pace allows for more control and safety. There can be a threat in face-to-face confrontations that is nonexistent in online disputes. The power dynamics online are much less impactful because of the change in environment.
Technology itself brings with it several other advantages. With tools like online translating sites, grammar sites, and video or audio chatting sites, conflict resolution can feel smoother than ever before. The ability to multi task is reinforced with the power of computers. While speaking you can also be researching your argument, drawing up power points and charts, or sending over files that emphasize your point. It offers more opportunities for resolutions that face-to-face may not have. Although, technology can also malfunction and interrupt a situation that would otherwise be resolved quickly in person. It just depends on the situation. The internet connection can be weak, the audio and video quality can suffer, and other times it can just plainly not work. On the other hand, if it does work, it’s hard to argue that it is not more convenient than face-to-face negotiations.
When you are hundreds of miles away from your friends, you have no other option but to speak online. It can feel as rewarding as it is underwhelming at times. Having a tech support conversation with someone online can feel just as endless as it can be quick and easy. The media richness theory supports that the more complex the issue, the more effective a richer medium can be, but it’s not always the case. Effectiveness is subjective. For some, sitting in traffic for thirty minutes to resolve a conflict that will take five minutes in person when they eventually meet, is more effective than speaking over the internet for twenty-five minutes and tediously going back and forth eventually reaching a conclusion just the same as it would’ve been in person.
There is a superstition that online conflict can never be better than face-to-face. It is often met with hostility and resentment because people feel a lack of true closure, or it just doesn’t feel quite real. I’ve asked countless people what they prefer, and the results strongly advocate for face-to-face conflict resolution. It’s not denied that online resolution can be more convenient at times, but it is simply not as enticing to most. It’s hard to put my finger right on the feeling that comes from it, but it’s a manufactured essence. At the end of the day you’re either looking into a computer screen and hearing their voice through a microphone and speakers, or you’re hearing them speak in person and feeling and breathing in the atmosphere. It just doesn’t feel as real. I want you to picture a young man who has tragically lost his father. If he heard his fathers’ voice on a computer video or an audio-clip, a sense of security and joy will overcome him. He’ll initially be flooded with their memories together, but then will start feeling empty again. He may be hearing his dads’ voice, but it’s a surreal feeling knowing he’s not there. This is an extreme example, but without the sadness this feeling can be similar to online communication. It is not without its advantages, but it is also not without its faults. Having the power to communicate online is in it of itself a blessing. Simply having the option is advantageous, but when conflict strikes, we need to determine the best course of action to take. Sometimes it will be online and sometimes it will be in person, but all the time, we will have the power to make that decision for ourselves.
Jandt, F. E. (n.d.). Conflict & Communication. Sage.