Lately I’ve come across multiple articles in the press showing how much science and nature have to teach us about conflict management. For this two-part series, I thought I’d share some lessons in conflict management from the world of nature, naturalists, scientists, and science.
How to Keep the Peace Online
It’s no secret that Internet culture is rife with conflict. The micro-blogging platform Twitter is probably the most well-known example of the ways in which social media platforms can fuel divisiveness.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Certain tactics and mindsets can help conversations on the Internet be much more productive. Recently, for example, the New York Times highlighted the iNaturalist app, through which nature enthusiasts collectively identify species featured in photos uploaded by users. When users upload photos of plants or animals they don’t recognize to the app, other members of the community can propose identifications, and a consensus generally emerges. iNaturalist’s success in maintaining civil discourse throughout the process offers us at least three conflict management lessons that can be useful in the offline world as well.
Communication guidelines and norms make a world of difference
The first lesson has to do with group norms and guidelines. One way to minimize the potential for destructive online group conflict before it occurs is to establish norms that will guide interaction among members. iNaturalist’s guidelines, for example, include “Assume people mean well,” “Don’t justify identifications with your credentials or dismissive comments,” and “You don’t have to have the last word.'”
Indeed, setting group norms can be a useful way to keep all sorts of conversations productive and constructive. Whether you’re in a classroom, at work, or online, establishing community norms for interaction from the outset of a group’s time together can lessen the likelihood of misunderstandings and unnecessary tensions.
Remember that it’s fine (even good) to be wrong
Conflict often arises when we find ourselves on the defensive. A common reason for defensive feelings is learning that one has been wrong about something, which can lead to embarrassment and/or shame.
Therefore, to lessen the likelihood of getting dragged into an online conflict arising from defensiveness, it’s important to accept the idea that we’re all, at least on occasion, mistaken, and that our errors can actually be a blessing in disguise.
In the case of iNaturalist, one member remarked on the experience of learning that her initial conjecture about the identity of a species in an uploaded photo was likely wrong: “The pang that can often come with being wrong on the internet was eclipsed… by what felt like a small collective triumph,” she commented.
Viewing “wrongness” as a triumph may seem paradoxical, but as Adam Grant has explained in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, there can be joy in discovering the errors in one’s beliefs. Seeing mistaken beliefs as an opportunity for growth rather than a cause for defensiveness can alleviate the negative emotions that often lead to online conflict.
A conflictive culture can be influenced through micro-actions
An online community culture can often feel impossible for individuals to influence, but iNaturalist shows us that even actions on a small level can make a large difference in a group’s overall experience. Every time a civil discussion leads to an accurate identification of a species on the app (a phenomenon the New York Times terms a “nano-agreement”) it reinforces the idea that the collective search for the truth online—or indeed anywhere—doesn’t need to be an impossible or contentious endeavor.
In sum, our individual actions can help create the collaborative culture we would like to inhabit, whether we’re online or off.
By: Dr. Julia Farmer, Director of Ombuds Services, University of West Georgia