Disputes are inevitable. When they happen in families or at work, we manage to get past them because we often have no other choice.

In virtual worlds, relationships can be more tenuous and more quickly discarded. Anonymous and more free of social constraint, people can forget to treat us with the same respect they might afford real world interactions. It can be easier to insult or turn your back on someone with whom you disagree. We can, if we wish, even block offenders so that for us at least, they needn’t even exist.

Like most of you, I too have experienced disputes in the virtual world. Some were misunderstandings arising from the limited nature of text-based communication. Others were more complicated and led to the withering of meaningful relationships.

I see a lot of the fallout from inworld disputes in social media. Who hasn’t seen the ambiguous Facebook status update stating: “I’ve had it with ‘so-called friends’ who backstab me and don’t take responsibility for their sh*t”, or something like that?

I’d share examples, but I’ve unfollowed them all.

These publicly expressed frustrations can be useful venting mechanisms, but they do not resolve disputes. That is precisely what not to do if you want to resolve a conflict with another person. Throwing one’s frustrations out on the mercy of public support may make you feel better, but it does nothing to mend fences between injured parties. Further, it makes you (the complainer) look like a whiner that deserves a wide social berth.

By resorting to these less efficient methods, we may miss valuable opportunities to learn, practice and hone our dispute resolution skills. These skills are useful, but they need work.

If we don’t learn them, we might get lazy when faced with situations we’d rather not face. At worst, we might allow these lazy habits to bleed into our more meaningful relationships, where it might be harder to run away from our social responsibilities.

Last Wednesday I hosted a Chat Salon at Basilique. At the Salon, we discussed participant’s best approaches to resolving disputes. As I heard everyone’s views, I noted the most resonant suggestions and made a list.

Before I share them with you, I’d like to frame these approaches in two ways.

First, I am assuming that when faced with a dispute, you want both parties to win. The methods I list will not help you ‘win arguments’. Rather, they might lead to win-win agreements, where neither party feels like they lost. I prefer win-win outcomes to disputes because they tend to help us preserve relationships.

Second, I’m again reminded of how Aikido principles can help me handle conflicts. To my surprise, the disputes needn’t even be physical. In class this week, we learned how every move in Aikido follows an A-B-C structure. The structure is

  • Avoid
  • Break balance
  • Control

First, you avoid an attack by shifting your body out of harm’s way and keeping a safe distance. Second, you break your opponent’s balance by doing something they do not expect. Third, you control your opponent’s aggression by redirecting their energy in a way that incapacitates them. As a result, you and your attacker remain unharmed – a win-win. I have come to realize that non-violent dispute resolution techniques follow a similar A-B-C pattern.

Here is the list of recommendations, in order of application:

Avoid

  1. Know disputes will happen. Know they’re inevitable. Appreciating this fact will help you avoid surprise and remain calm when attacks arise.
  2. Avoid conflict where you can. First, don’t start it. Think before you speak. Choose your battles with care. Sometimes it’s better to let go of a throwaway comment or perceived slight. Why argue every.single.point? Instead, defuse the bomb before it detonates. Maintaining your sense of humour and not taking yourself too seriously helps here.

Break Balance

  1. If you sense an argument building, move the conversation into a private channel as soon as you can. If you’re in a group or local chat, move it to PM. If it’s a blog comment, email the commenter. Don’t waste your time attempting to manage a dispute with someone in a public forum like group chat. Handling conflicts in a public forum only invites grandstanding. The bigger the forum, the more drama may ensue.
  2. Stay as calm and relaxed as you can. Depersonalise attacks. Remember that people often bring their problems or history to their disputes. It’s a paradox, but becoming defensive will reduce your defensive effectiveness.
  3. Get the facts first. Know “what happened?” Ask: “How did you feel when this happened?” Hear them out without interruption – even if you know, they are wrong. Let them vomit their grievances until they tire themselves out. Pushing back at this stage will only fuel their fire. Instead, listen and breathe.
  4. Look to the reason for their grievance. Consider: “Why is this important to them?” and “What do they want?” Listen not to reply, but to understand. Often we might find we are arguing against what we perceive the problem is instead of the real issue.
  5. Listen for frames of reference. Consider: “Where are they coming from?” and “What does this mean for them?” As you listen, you may better understand why this issue is worth their ire.

Control

  1. Empathise with their losses or harm. Even if they only perceive the losses and they are not intended. Sometimes people just need to vent and be heard. Shutting them down too soon may cause them to appear foolish or risk losing face. Appreciate their feelings, even if you do not agree with their position.
  2. Take responsibility for your part, even if it’s a tiny part. Your part might be a failure to listen, or a failure to clearly communicate, or a failure to notice something. Rarely are disputes 100% one-sided. Even taking responsibility for a small part of the problem may go a long way towards defusing an attack.
  3. Look for mutual interests: Consider: “What do we both want?” The sooner you can focus on a solution, the sooner you can stop arguing. One participant suggested that shifting the aggression toward a common enemy may be effective in deflecting attacks.
  4. Abandon preconceived positions. In any argument one person has a position and the other person takes another. Keep your eye instead on mutual interests. Let go of your position (what you thought was important) if the area of common interest is more important than your position.
  5. Identify solutions together. Ask them how they’d like to see it resolved. If you can agree with that, there’s more chance they’ll be happy with the resolution. There’s more chance you’ll be able to live with it.
  6. Agree on a resolution. Put it down in writing if you can. When emotions run high, remembering details can be a challenge. Sometimes we can be so relieved the argument is over that we forget to put the resolution into action.
  7. Fix the problem as best and as quick as you can.
  8. If need be, prepare to walk away. Not every dispute is resolvable. How much you can live with depends on how much you value the relationship. Experts in negotiation tell us to have a BATNA in mind – a Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Having a BATNA will help you negotiate from a position of strength. Sometimes that BATNA is walking away from the disagreement – agreeing to disagree.

In all this it’s important to accept that not every problem is resolvable. Not every relationship can last forever. Why should things only have beginnings and not ends? Impermanence is a fact of life. The better we are at letting go, the better we will be at being happy.

Disputes happen. They always will. These skills are necessary because the enduring quality of your more important relationships depends on them. Every dispute is a test. Every argument is an exercise. Every disagreement is an opportunity to practice. After all, half of life is getting on with others. The other half is getting on with yourself.

Thank you to all the participants at the Basilique Chat Salon for sharing their suggestions with me. What do you think of these approaches? Do you have any you would add that have worked for you?