“The two main things that get in the way are the lack of shared understanding about how you work and lack of shared identity,” says Mark Mortensen, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. Plus, you don’t know how the other person is reacting. “You’re not seeing body language, facial expressions or hearing voice intonation,” says Pamela Hinds, an associate professor in management science and engineering at Stanford University.
Here are a few things to think about and do differently when tension is brewing with a colleague miles away:
— Try to give your colleague the benefit of the doubt. Because you’re not sitting in the same building, it’s easy to make assumptions about how your colleague feels or why he is acting the way he is. Instead of thinking the worst about your colleague, ask yourself what else could be going on.
— Move the conversation away from email. If you’re arguing via email, stop. Pick up the phone and call your colleague, or schedule a time to do a Skype video call. “In order to resolve a conflict, both sides have to understand the other’s perspective. That’s much harder to do when you can’t see each other and the communication isn’t synchronous,” says Hinds.
— Focus on what you have in common. When you’re talking with your colleague, start the conversation by highlighting what you have in common. You can talk about how you’re both parents of young children, how you went to the same college or about your shared commitment to the job.
— See the other side. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine what she’s experiencing. Why might she be upset? What about this situation is frustrating to her? “That will put you in a stronger position to solve the problem, and to mend the fences later on,” says Mortensen.
— Consider cultural differences. “Language and cultural differences often compound the issue,” says Hinds. “If someone says, ‘No, it’s fine,’ it may not mean that. It may mean, ‘I’m in complete disagreement with that but I’m not going to say that,’” she says. If you’re not sure how to translate their behavior, find someone who can advise you, a colleague in the same office or from the same culture.
— Bring in someone else if necessary. If you’re not able to solve the issue between the two of you, you may need to ask someone else to intervene.
— Use the fight to strengthen your relationship. One of the benefits of solving a conflict with a remote colleague is the fact that you then have a shared experience. You want disagreements to become water under the bridge, but it’s helpful to talk about them as well.
— Increase informal communication. Take advantage of opportunities for informal interactions. Keep your instant messenger open to share personal snippets or jokes throughout the day. Take virtual breaks together, chatting on the phone while you both sip tea.
(Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review.)
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Company