Conflicts are inevitable, but when they happen online, they can become very nasty. Folks will say things in an email that they would never say in person. Because online communication is public and permanent, it’s good to prevent a flame war when you can, or to douse it quickly.
Computers are great at bridging distances but they can also create distances, keeping away someone whom you don’t like. That distance comes around to feed the flames because it is easier to attack a name on the screen than a real person.
When the topic is sensitive or you have a history of conflict, or a current conflict, with someone then visit if possible. If you can’t visit then call.
This will give you the non-verbal contextual information and the chance to modify the message instantly. You might still fight but you can prevent an accidental fight based on misunderstanding.
In the visit or call, take advantage of the opportunity for small talk. You don’t have to like each other but if you come away thinking, “Bob is a Phillies fan, like me, and a bonehead” then you’ll probably fight less intensely or less often than if you think simply, “Bob is a bonehead.”
When you feel like you are being attacked but can’t understand why, a bit of small talk can make you more real to the other person and break you out of whatever mold your attacker has put you in.
Email your friends but visit or call your enemies.
Good timing matters
Postpone communicating about sensitive topics and with persons whom you don’t like when you are Hungry, Angry, Tired, or Excessively Focused. Be reluctant to email or post late at night.
Take the time to read what is on the screen and to think about your reply. Slow it down. You can write a reply in word-processing software, mull it over and edit it, then copy and paste to email when you are ready.
It’s OK to step away from the computer.
Keep it short
Write short messages, broken into small sections, and make your recipient list as short as you can. Copying your friends on a flame war is aggressive and they probably don’t want to join it, anyway.
In a chat room or group, take the war off-list.
Online groups are supposed to be fun but they are not fun when ruined by flame wars about irrelevant topics. At work, your boss is paying you to take care of something.
When the flames start, go back to thinking about where you are and why and organize your communication around that purpose.