People and problems come in types, and in online disputes it’s important to know what kind of problem you have, who you’re dealing with, and what you want to do. (More)

Online Civility Part II: Buckets of Trouble

This week Morning Feature considers Andrea Weckerle’s Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies and Other Jerks. Yesterday we looked at the technical and cultural differences that make disputes more difficult to manage. Today we see the categories of online disputes and various dispute styles. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how to restore and maintain civility and minimize the damage of online disputes.

Andrea Weckerle earned her Juris Doctor at T.C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond, as well as a Master’s in Public Relations/Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University. She designed and implemented dispute resolution programs for several Fortune 500 companies while at the professional services firm of Ernst & Young. She then opened her own consulting firm before founding CivilNation, a non-profit charity organization taking a stand against online hostility, character assassination and adult cyberbullying.

“You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

You’ve probably read or heard some version of Cyrus Ching’s famous adage: “I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” You’ve probably also read the online version: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Trolls are the internet analogs to Ching’s pigs: people who pick fights to get attention, distract from other topics, and provoke angry responses. They don’t really care about the claims they assert. Disprove one claim and they’ll shift to another claim, and act as if they’ve been saying that all along. Quoting a prior claim back will have no effect, because trolls don’t care about truth, accuracy, logic, or evidence … except to demand those from others, in the most absolute possible standards. Standards that can never be met to the troll’s satisfaction, as that would risk ending the argument and the troll’s primary goal is to keep the argument going.

Thus Ching’s adage and its online form: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The best response to trolls is to ignore them. It’s wise advice … if an emerging dispute involves a troll. But what if it doesn’t, and how do you know?

Types of troublemakers

Weckerle describes several kinds of online miscreants:

  • Trolls – These come in various forms and may act alone or run in packs, but all delight in provoking an emotional response and argue for the sake of arguing.
  • Sockpuppets – These are individuals or groups who try to increase their impact by using false identities. They may choose alternate identities to boost their credibility (e.g.: Tom MacMaster) or to create the impression of greater numbers, a lone malcontent or small group appearing to be a large group.
  • Cyberbullies, Cyberharassers, and Cyberstalkers – These people use the internet to hurt specific individuals or types of people. They may choose targets who are famous, who support a cause they oppose, or who are underage, grieving, or otherwise vulnerable. Many attempt to get personal information and attack the target offline, directly or through family, community, or work contacts.
  • Difficult People – Weckerle writes that these account for most online disputes and “can range from those who act thoughtlessly, stupidly, or obnoxiously, to the intentionally mean, overtly aggressive, and power-hungry who want to put you in your place.” They may have legitimate grievances, but their behavior makes the dispute much harder to resolve.

“Know Thyself”

That ancient Delphic maxim remains a key to interpersonal relations. While “Don’t Feed the Trolls” is wise advice for all of us, the menu of responses in other disputes is much wider. Which responses you choose depend as much on your conflict style as on the type of conflict. Weckerle identifies seven adult conflict styles:

  • Competing: The Warrior – This style sees disputes in terms of winning and losing. Winning represents strength; losing is weakness. The other side’s goals are obstacles to be overcome, and the Warrior believes that his views and positions are the only legitimate and correct ones.
  • Coercing: The Bulldozer – Like the Warrior, this style sees disputes as zero-sum games to be won or lost. But the Bulldozer is more likely to declare a decision by virtue of (real or imagined) authority, or ignore others’ objections and proceed as if his/her position has been agreed to.
  • Circumventing: The Dodger – This style sees conflict as something to be avoided, uncomfortable or even dangerous. The Dodger may avoid the dispute, deflect attention onto others, withdraw from the situation, or cut off communication rather than engage the other party.
  • Compliant: The Pacifier – Like the Dodger, this style seeks to avoid conflict. But the Pacifier is more likely to “go along to get along,” letting the other party set the story and choose the outcome. Weckerle notes that almost all of us use this style at least some of the time, because we genuinely don’t care which outcome is chosen or we don’t see the issue as important enough to argue.
  • Compromising: The Negotiator – This style considers the wants and needs of both parties and attempts to reach agreements that both can accept (albeit sometimes grudgingly). The Negotiator is willing to compromise, with each side giving on some points to get something on other points.
  • Covert: The Operative – This style uses disputes to gain advantages for him/herself or his/her group. The Operator appears pleasant and reasonable, and may seem to befriend opponents who can later be turned or betrayed.
  • Collaborative: The Resolver – This style sees disputes as opportunities for growth. The Resolver uses creative problem-solving to seek mutually agreeable solutions that everyone will support, and for whom all will assume responsibility.

Weckerle emphasizes that none of these styles is always wrong or always ideal. If someone you love or something you care deeply about is threatened, you may need to be the Warrior or take a Bulldozer approach by invoking overwhelming authority (e.g.: calling the police). Ignoring trolls is a Dodger response and, as noted above, almost all of us play the Pacifier at least sometimes. A Negotiator or Collaborator can be very helpful if all parties are willing to work together, but can offer few solutions if some are not. The Operative is dishonest and may seem distasteful, but that’s often how police infiltrate criminal gangs.

Weckerle offers a Conflict Style Quiz in the book, and there are similar quizzes online, although they resolve to slightly different styles than listed here. The key is to recognize that you do not stand outside your disputes. You are a participant in them, and your conflict style will influence how they develop and whether or how they are resolved.

Tomorrow we’ll explore how to build, maintain, and restore civility in our online interactions.

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Happy Thursday!