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Handling Board and Online Conflict

Online Communication:
Handling Conflict & Triggers

It is sometimes very difficult for survivors to find the words to express their feelings in the face of discomfort. Hard feelings between members erupt from time to time on the board as a result of approaches and responses that go awry.

Message boards afford us a wonderful opportunity to connect with people we would never otherwise come to know in our lives. Survivors' forums are very unique places. Finding validation, empathy, and understanding in the words of a stranger seems almost impossible, and yet it happens every day here.

There are some things that occur in this interaction which can be very healthy and other things that can elicit old triggers, old responses, and bring out a less-than-healthy side in all of us.

There has been much research into online communication. John Suler has written pretty extensively on this subject and his article,"The Online Disinhibition Effect" is a very insightful look into the dynamics involved.

As the article states, we all play out things online that we likely might not in real life. There is an invisible wall between us called anonymity. Some people will use this anonymity to free their better selves, others their lesser, or both.

One tendency to be aware of is that since communication is up to 90% nonverbal, we are not given the whole picture into the other person's intent when we type online messages and because of that, we make our own connections. We fill in the blanks. We assign motives and meanings, sometimes our own, to other people. We may even associate an online personality with someone we actually know unconsciously and react accordingly.

For instance, a manager on a board might represent 'authority' in some way and survivors who were constantly overpowered by some N, be it a significant other or a parent or a boss, make that connection on a subconscious level. We are targets as administrators for a transfer of that anger. At other times, we are angry with ourselves and project it onto someone else who is struggling. We give our own angst a voice by admonishing somebody else. It might be a fellow member who is a recipient for that transfer. Something sparks a familiar pang, and off we go.

Transference often causes aggression. It's always unpleasant. We can't control somebody else behaving that way, so the question is, how do we deal with this once we become aware that it might be going on? There are so many reactions. A frequent response on the boards is the passive-aggressive solution. Rather than stepping up and confronting the issue in a healthy way when we are troubled by a response, we turn to old tapes. We may contact other members looking for validation of our hurt or distressed feelings. The usual refrain is, "Do you feel this way, TOO? Oh, good, I thought I was the only one." Think about that. Is that not exactly what you felt with the N? That it was your FEELINGS that were the issue? It's comforting having somebody else validate them. The real goal, of course, is to learn to validate them ourselves.

Unfortunately, the tendency to go to somebody else for a barometer check can elicit all sorts of problems on a message board. Gossip, speculation, looking for a rescuer perhaps in another member, looking for validation outside of the place where the problem should be hashed out and that's either with management or with the person involved, etc.--all these responses create a very familiar safety net: hidden hurt, victim-stance, distraction and chaos. Drama. Drawing other people into OUR drama OR being drawn into theirs keeps us from having to focus on ourselves in the right and healthy way.

Another passive-aggressive solution is the veiled and implied putdown. It is often the person who is acting out in the first place who elects to use this one. Now, on a message board this is by far the most insidious kind of thing. Because it's so easy to deny that you 'meant it THAT way' if called to account when it's simply implied, it's difficult for an administrator to take action on this kind of passive-aggressive response on first blush even when it's pretty obvious. A pattern does emerge over time making it easier to address, but it is still a difficult thing. A word of warning if you think you see this being done: it often is going on, but it is also possible that you may indeed on occasion be assigning a meaning that isn't there at all in what somebody posts and in that case, look closely at your tendency to project.

A third response is the kneejerk. We fight back maybe because that's what we've done or maybe because that's what we HAVE NOT done before and we feel like we're finding our voice. There is a fine line between 'defending ourselves' and attacking, unfortunately.

No matter your tendency in reacting, if you get that 'icky feeling' that somebody just took a shot at you or someone else, there is a solution that doesn't include sitting with it and brooding, or turning to other members to see if they thought it was a shot, too, or going off on someone on the board, either directly or indirectly. The general board policy of not letting your fingers fly to the keyboard with an angry response always applies. If a post really bothers you and you do not know how to respond to it in a way that doesn't have the potential to cause some manner of disruption either for yourself or others, please PM management. We never want anyone to feel they are being targeted, especially by a fellow member. In addition, there is yet another way to deal with it that doesn't violate the policy if the board.

(Continued in Post #2)

"The best way out is always through."--Robert Frost
Jun/19/2009, 2:11 pm Link to this post  
LynnS Profile
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Re: Handling Board and Online Conflict

Non-Violent Communication

The other way to handle it may surprise you and it is indeed, directly. This is where our boundary and communication skills can be tested and built. If you feel someone is being disrespectful to you or sometimes even if someone is posting things that disturb you about their actions, there is a way of approaching that which is not angry, blaming, shaming, or defensive. This is where assertive and empathetic communication comes into play and it also puts the focus back where it belongs, on our feelings.

This is about making "I" statements. When you start with "You", you're probably going to follow that "You" with an attack. So, if someone says something that seems off-base, the response would look something like this:

"What I heard you say is that you think I'm ___________. Is that what you meant?"

This is an important step if there is any doubt, because you've given the person something to respond to and potentially clarify.

Alternatively, the formula for this kind of communication looks like this:

"I felt ___________ (describe the feeling) when you said ______________ because it reminded me/made me think ________________, (describe the trigger) so I am asking you to _________________(this is where you request the change in response you'd like to see going forward) so that _______."(this is the hoped for positive result.)

One of our members, OldGrowthForest, has stressed the importance of this kind of non-violent communication on the forum in the thread: Words of Healing, Words of Harm


Words. Words can cause such pain, and sometimes words set us so free. Here on the board, words are it. They are what we have between us.

There was one concept that I struggled with for years that I simply couldn't "get" no matter how hard I tried. It was the serenity prayer. That may be difficult for others to understand, but I had a basic faulty concept that blocked my growth. I couldn't understand why I couldn't have some control, or might not have the power or the right to control things that affected me. It seemed to me that if things, anything, created difficulties for me, then I had some rights or say-so in the whole scheme.
Then, one day I read Covey's 7 Habits book, and his concepts about effective people focusing their energy on things they could control made it all clear. He stated that we all have forces that affect our lives that we simply have no control over. That is life. And effective people figure out the difference between the things they can control and the things they can't, and they focus their energies where they have control. This may seem obvious to many people, like, good grief ogf, water is wet you know, but it was a pivotal turning for me. It was like a huge light went on and chains that held me down were dropped.
Another concept I always struggled with, and I mean always struggled with, was that of "judging" others. I got it in the larger sense - that I could not decide the true worth or value of another person, because I could not know the "whole" of the story, not the beginning, not the end, and not the in-between.
But I could not understand the small sense of "judging" others. It eluded me. There were really no examples of effective interactions with others that I could find that did not include some form of judgment.
The truth is, most people find "judgment" just fine, as long as it is a complimentary or "positive" judgment. But no one wants to be judged in negative or diminishing terms.
Then I read Marshall Rosenberg's work on nonviolent communications, and another one of those huge lights went on. I have posted links to his website about half a dozen times on the old board because learning his techniques and hearing the concepts in his words helped me past seemingly unbreachable limitations. His insight and eloquence have been a huge gift to me in my life, and here is the link again for anyone interested.
The difference between aggressive communications and non-aggressive communications is simply the difference between observing and evaluating others.
Regardless of how sensitive we try to be, regardless of how pure we claim our motives are, when we evaluate other people rather than observe as objectively as possible what they say or do, we always run the risk of leveling some form of psychological violence toward them.
We may justify it by calling it "tough love," or declaring how we only have the other person's best interests at heart, but in our heart of hearts, we know and they know, something is not ringing true. Something about the interaction creates a winner and a loser, a person who is right and a person who is wrong, and if we are really honest with ourselves, it always hurts everyone. There are no winners. On the contrary, diminishing others always hurts me more profoundly than it does them, if I am only able to see it.
This was very hard for me to learn. It took many, many years, and many, many mistakes. It took a lot of suffering before I could give up being "right" and "helpful" to other people. The great gift of sincerely trying to be genuinely kinder to others has been that I am less harmed by the psychological violence directed toward me. I see it more truly for what it is.
From Rosenberg's site:
What is Nonviolent Communication?

Imagine connecting with the human spirit, in each person, in any situation.

Imagine interacting with others in a way that allows everyone’s needs to be equally valued.

Imagine creating organizations and life-serving systems responsive to our needs and the needs of our environment.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) helps connect us with what is alive in ourselves and in others moment-to-moment, with what we or others could do to make life more wonderful, and with an awareness of what gets in the way of natural giving and receiving.

NVC language strengthens our ability to inspire compassion from others and respond compassionately to others and ourselves. NVC guides us to reframe how we express ourselves, how we hear others and resolve conflicts by focusing our consciousness on what we are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.

Nonviolent Communication Language: It awakens empathy and honesty, and is sometimes described as "the language of the heart."--OldGrowthForest

You can google "assertive communication", "empathetic listening", or "non-violent communication" if you're interested in more info on this topic. These are skills we can use in all of our interactions to positive effect, both on message boards and in our lives.


Last edited by LynnS, Jun/20/2009, 7:44 am

"The best way out is always through."--Robert Frost
Jun/19/2009, 2:14 pm Link to this post  
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Re: Handling Board and Online Conflict

To summarize, here is an excerpt from an excellent article with tips for handling conflict in cyberspace.

Conflict in Cyberspace:
How to Resolve Conflict Online


Tips for Resolving Conflict Online

What can be done to prevent unnecessary conflict in cyberspace? The following are tips for handling conflict online with respect, sensitivity, and care:

Don't respond right away
When you feel hurt or angry about an email or post, it's best not to respond right away. You may want to write a response immediately, to get it off your chest, but don't hit send! Suler recommends waiting 24 hours before responding - sleep on it and then reread and rewrite your response the next day.

Read the post again later
Sometimes, your first reaction to a post is a lot about how you're feeling at the time. Reading it later, and sometimes a few times, can bring a new perspective. You might even experiment by reading it with different tones (matter-of-fact, gentle, non-critical) to see if it could have been written with a different tone in mind than the one you initially heard.

Discuss the situation with someone who knows you
Ask them what they think about the post and the response you plan to send. Having input from others who are hopefully more objective can help you to step back from the situation and look at it differently. Suler recommends getting out of the medium in which the conflict occurred - in this case talking to someone in person - to gain a better perspective.

Choose whether or not you want to respond
You do have a choice, and you don't have to respond. You may be too upset to respond in the way that you would like, or it may not be worthy of a response. If the post is accusatory or inflammatory and the person's style tends to be aggressive or bullying, the best strategy is to ignore them.

Assume that people mean well, unless they have a history or pattern of aggression
Everyone has their bad days, gets triggered, reacts insensitively, and writes an email without thinking it through completely. It doesn't mean that they don't have good intentions.

On the other hand, some people pick fights no matter how kind and patient you are with them. They distort what you say, quote you out of context, and make all sorts of accusations all to vilify and antagonize you. Don't take the "bait" by engaging in a struggle with them - they'll never stop. Sometimes, the best strategy is to have nothing more to do with someone.

Clarify what was meant
We all misinterpret what we hear and read, particularly when we feel hurt or upset. It's a good idea to check out that you understood them correctly. For example, you could ask, "When you said...did you mean...or, what did you mean by..." Or, "when you said...I that what you meant?" Often times, what we think someone said is not even close to what they meant to say. Give them the benefit of the doubt and the chance to be clear about what they meant.

Think about what you want to accomplish by your communication
Are you trying to connect with this person? Are you trying to understand them and be understood? What is the message you hope to convey? What is the tone you want to communicate? Consider how you can convey that.

Verbalize what you want to accomplish
Here are some examples, "I want to understand what you're saying." "I feel hurt by some stuff that you said. I want to talk about it in a way that we both feel heard and understood." "I want to find a way to work this out. I know we don't agree about everything and that's okay. I'd like to talk with you about how I felt reading your post." "I hope we can talk this through because I really like you. I don't want to be argumentative or blaming."

Use "I" statements when sharing your feelings or thoughts
For example, "I feel"... versus... "You made me feel"

Use strictly feeling statements
Feeling statements include saying you felt hurt, sad, scared, angry, happy, guilty, remorseful, etc. In everyday conversations, we describe our feelings differently than this. For example, we say that we felt attacked, threatened, unsafe, or punched in the stomach. When the person we're upset with is not present, or able to read our words, this is an understandable way to express the full depth of our feelings and experience. Generally though, these statements are not simply feeling statements because they contain within them unexpressed beliefs. For example, you believe that you were attacked by the person, not that it just felt that way. If you want to communicate with the person involved (or they can read your words), it is best to stick to simple feeling statements otherwise they will hear you as accusing them of attacking them and be angry or upset with you. Some people get confused why other people get upset with them when they think they are only expressing their feelings; usually in these cases there were unstated beliefs expressed which the person reacted to.

Choose your words carefully and thoughtfully, particularly when you?re upset
Do your best to keep in mind that the person will read your post alone. You are not physically or virtually present with them to clarify what you meant, and they can't see the kindness in your eyes. They must rely entirely on your words to interpret your meaning, intent, and tone. This is why it's important to choose your words carefully and thoughtfully. You can still be real and honest while being selective.

Place yourself in the other person's shoes
How might they hear your message? To avoid unnecessary conflict or a lot of hurt feelings, it helps to take into account who you're writing to. One person might be able to hear you say it exactly how you think it, and another person would be threatened by that style of communication. Think about the other person when writing your email or post. Do your best to communicate in a way that is respectful, sensitive, and clear to them. People often say, to do that feels like they're being controlled and why shouldn't they just write it the way they want to. Of course you can write it any way you want, especially online, but if you want to communicate with this person and have them hear and understand what you're saying, it helps to think about how they will hear it.

Use emoticons to express your tone
In online communication, visual and auditory cues are replaced by emoticons, for example, smiles, winks, and laughter. It helps to use emoticons to convey your tone. Additionally, if you like the person, tell them! Having a conflict or misunderstanding doesn't mean you don't like the person any more, but people often forget that reality, or don't think to say it. It may be most needed during a tense interaction.

Start and end your post with positive, affirming, and validating statements
Say what you agree with, what you understand about how they feel, and any other positive statements at the beginning of your email. This helps set a positive tone. End on a positive note as well.

The Paradox of Online Communication
Handling conflict constructively is hard at the best times, and it can be even harder online. It can take a great deal of effort, care, and thoughtfulness to address differences, tensions, and conflicts online. Paradoxically, some of the same things that contribute to heightened conflict online can contribute to peaceful resolutions as well. The internet is an ideal place to practice communication and conflict resolution skills. Just as the absence of visual and auditory cues, the anonymity, invisibility, delayed reactions, and neutralizing of status free us to say what ever negative thing we want, they can also free us to try new, and more positive communication styles and to take all the time we need to do that. As with any new technology, the internet can be used to enhance our personal growth and relationships, or to alienate us from each other. It's our choice.

"The best way out is always through."--Robert Frost
Jun/19/2009, 2:17 pm Link to this post  
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Re: Handling Board and Online Conflict


The information above applies when something is directed at you. On the other hand, if you find yourself wanting to rescue another member who you feel is being attacked, please refrain. It's not your job to rescue a fellow member from any attack by somebody else on the board. That results in drama as well. PM management in that event.

Giving Advice

Another thing regarding communication that comes into play on the boards is in terms of giving advice. Advising people in general is dicey territory. We all do it to some degree, but please use judgment in how you position it. If it's too strident or has a finger-pointing quality, it can too often result in a one-up/one-down dynamic. That is never heard as it's meant. The immediate reaction to that approach is defensive. Truly effective support, in my opinion, is witnessing our own experiences, not telling somebody else what they should/must/need to do. Saying, "I have found No Contact to be the only solution that worked" is more easily heard than "YOU NEED to go No Contact", or "WHY are YOU talking to him" or anything that smacks of an undertone of "What's WRONG with you" or anything along those lines.

From Femfree:


I'm been a member and/or managed sites for 10 years now. There's some facts that I would like to mention of my experiences.

1. No Contact - yes, this is the way, but in fact, people do make contact - the normal # is some 4-7 times before the reality of the situation finally 'kicks in' and at that point, the learning and practical applications, pain and continued abuse result in No Contact. I call this the School of Hard Knocks.

We all get educated there.

4-7 times is average. Some people more than others, some less.

Some people may chose to remain with their abusers and only need coping tactics.

Others have commented to me that "I'd never have anything to do with him again - it was just too painful and brutal an ending."

But each of us is here and we cannot 'unlearn' what we discover. Digesting it, analzying it and acting may take years.

There are two key 'inspirational' messages that drive this point home:

the Journey


The Awakening

These two messages point out that it's an often lengthy process for us to make that journey to our own 'awakening.'

It's best to encourage people on the right track, but our biggest value in a message board is not the advice, but the validation we provide. Sharing our experiences, warts and all is the most helpful.

From Melody Beattie....

"Forcing ourselves - or anyone else - to face the truth, usually doesn't help. We won't face the facts until we are ready. Neither will anyone else. We may admit to the truth for a moment, but we won't let ourselves know what we know until we feel safe, secure and prepared to deal and cope with it". The Excerpt – The Language of Letting Go (author) Melody Beatty

In this same vein, an article I like very much is "The Resiliency Route to Self-Esteem".

From that article:


Ironically, social scientists are finding that achieving healing is more likely to occur through employing a focus on clients' strengths. People dealing with the serious problems mentioned above have historically struggled in therapies and programs that ignored their strengths. Fortunately, "the strength approach" to helping people heal is gaining greater acceptance as a more powerful and successful approach.

"People are more motivated to change when their strengths are supported," concludes Dennis Saleebey (2001), editor of The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice. People I have interviewed who have left gangs, recovered from alcohol and other drug addiction, made it successfully through college despite a childhood of abuse, or overcome other significant traumas have told me the same thing. "The people who helped me the most were the ones who told me ‘what is right with you is more powerful than anything that is wrong with you,'" a young man who successfully completed college despite a childhood of living in one foster home after another told me (Henderson, 1991).

Tough Love

Just to be clear, it is never OK to attack other members in a derogatory or demeaning way on the board. "Wakeup calls" and "tough love" are sometimes effective if those approaches are utilized in an empathetic manner. There are times, especially when principles of the board are being tossed aside or a member's repeated behavior becomes counterproductive to the board's intent, that a confrontation is the most empathetic thing to do, but how it's done is really important.

I'm going to include something written on a past thread by our long-time member, warkittens, which I think offers a really good guideline to follow in this regard.


On this board there has been consistently an atmosphere of compassion, caring, and respect. Or as Aretha would say R-E-S-P-E-C-T! This place is a safe haven for hurting people and there have been lives saved here-literally.

...Now it is true that after some time, it may be occasionally necessary to administer some kind "tough" love to a person-say someone who is still contacting the N or still putting themselves out in the middle of the road some how. Then it can be helpful to direct them to how they may be contributing to that-that maybe they should get into therapy or look at FOO issues. There is a way to do this and a way not to. All blaming, fingerpointing, harsh analyses etc.-that is not tough love-that can just be tough.

Hurting people need TLC and if they need "correction" it needs to be done in a kind way. No one here should be encouraged to "take the blame" or call themselves XYZ.

Sure-we all have issues and if you have been involved with a narcissist, there has to be something somewhere that allowed you to tolerate such a personality. The gentle education one needs in this regard must always be through the lens of growth and development.--warkittens

Those words ring so true for me. I think we all need to step back on occasion and ask ourselves, "What is my intent here?" As warkittens said, those confrontations that include a dose of 'tough love' should not ever contain a personal edge of contempt or derision. If you do see someone reacting like that, then it's very possible that they are transferring their anger at the N to you or to a manager. They may be hurting, but it's not ok for that kind of hurt to manifest itself in a destructive communication with another member here and we do our best to keep that kind of thing off the board.

The Result: Deletions

Excessive defensiveness and attack on a thread may result in deletions of a thread sometimes if it gets out of hand and the thread becomes an attack/counter-attack exercise. It's unfortunate when that happens because a lot of good posts including at times the original poster's post can be lost in the process which is often disheartening for members who tried to respond in a positive or helpful way and wanted to discuss issues on a reasonable level, only to see their own posts disappear. Please understand that deletions aren't personal and may or may not be about the topic introduced. We delete on content if it is inappropriate. We delete based on disrespect of fellow members far more often than content, though, so make it your policy to either not respond to things that anger or upset you, or if you do choose to respond, to bring the discourse down a notch, not escalate it by scolding, defending, shaming, or finger-pointing.

So, these are learning opportunities for all of us. Perhaps the best thing in many cases is to simply NOT react. If you do though, these skills may be helpful in framing it for the best result.

Or, to keep it simple, just remember what Aretha said. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

"The best way out is always through."--Robert Frost
Jun/20/2009, 7:43 am Link to this post  

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