Handling conflict in an online environment (good vs bad)

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A woman sitting in front of a camera and some books puts a pair of headphones on

How this will help

Differentiate between productive conflict from unproductive conflict in an online class.
To recognize where conflict is building in the classroom.
Find strategies to diffuse and redirect conflict to productive learning situations.

The basics

For many people, ‘conflict’ has a negative connotation. Though it is true that some types of conflict can be disruptive, there are other instances in which good conflict can be beneficial to the learning environment. Let’s explore the differences between productive/good and unproductive/bad conflict, and how to navigate them in your online classroom.

Conflict can happen in any classroom, including an online classroom. While there may be situations where conflict is planned, such as a conversation about a challenging or sensitive topic [link to sensitive topics], there can also be situations where conflict arises unexpectedly. While you may think that your subject matter does not lend itself to heated debate, conflict in an online classroom can occur from disagreements around content to misunderstandings in text-based communication. Asynchronous communication tools (like discussion boards) can also make conflict difficult to predict.

Productive/good conflict vs. unproductive/bad conflict

Conflict is not always bad – disagreements can lead to shared meaning-making and productive collaboration. Sometimes conflict can occur within the content itself, particularly if there are current events that involve privilege, oppression, diversity and/or social justice issues.

How do you know if a conflict is good or bad?

Good conflict brings learners together instead of dividing them. Cooperation and problem solving over content can generate new ideas. Good productive conflict does not place blame, but instead encourages individuals to think differently. The table below identifies major differences between productive and unproductive conflict in class.

Productive ConflictUnproductive Conflict
Focuses on issuesFocuses on people
Focuses on solutionsFocuses on the conflict
Focuses on the futureFocuses on the past
Brings people together; they cooperatePolarizes people; they compete and take sides
Involved trust and respectInvolves blame, shame, threats
Is about clarifying positions and perceptionsInvolves assumptions, inaccurate statements, unexamined positions

When to intervene in an unexpected online conflict

When conflict does arise, remember that content can be used as a common ground and can reconnect participants back to the course. Prior to intervening in a conflict, ask yourself the following questions:

Will students work this out on their own?
If the conflict is taking place in a small group, it may be important to let students work out the conflict together. This is an important piece of group dynamics. If conflict is brewing, you may wish to watch for the right time to intervene if the conflict is no longer being productive.

Is this a teachable moment?
Your presence in the conversation may provide clarity to misinformation and/or diffuse interpersonal conflict. Use the opportunity for conflict as an opportunity to model to students how conflict can be resolved.

What are the consequences of engaging or not engaging in this conversation?
Healthy differences in opinion are vital to expanding ideas and provoking critical thinking. It can also support the students’ need to collaborate and explore positions other than their own. Students require the space to participate in such conversations with minimal control by the facilitator. However, when conflicts become issues of netiquette or misconduct, it is important to engage as quickly as possible to reiterate the expectations of the group.

Is there enough time to fully address this issue?
Just like in a face-to-face class, disagreements in synchronous sessions may require significant time to unpack as a class. If the group’s attention shifts to an engaged debate, consider the importance of the topic to the course content as well as the group’s emotional attachment to the issue. Decide if there is ample time to expand the conversation at that moment or if additional time is necessary. Alternative ways of debriefing might be to assign a post-discussion reflection, host a discussion board thread around the topic and/or address the topic at office hours.

It is not uncommon to want to avoid unplanned conflict, and the perceived distance of online education can make it easier to overlook. However, a facilitator’s silence during some critical conversations can undermine the learning of course content. More importantly, the best learning environments want to promote a culture of mutual respect and intellectual and emotional safety. 

Even good conflicts can benefit from an acknowledgment of the conflict and a debrief after the fact.

Practical tips

  • Set clear expectations and group norms for discussions. Having clear expectations makes it easier to address conflicts before they get out of control. 
  • Be aware of topics that may be more sensitive to participants. Consider how you might structure a sensitive or controversial discussion ahead of time, preparing for the possibility of conflict. 
  • If there is an unexpected conflict, consider taking the following steps:
  1. Debrief with students after the conflict by sending a brief summary of the conversation, addressing students’ feelings as well as addressing misconceptions.
  2. Consider using a reflection as a short assignment to encourage students to examine their beliefs and how the conflict may have changed their thinking on the topic.
  • You may be wondering, “How will I know when the conversation begins to go south without seeing the participants’ physical cues?”
    • If the session is synchronous, you may very well be able to see some physical or vocal cues if students are becoming uncomfortable.
    • Pay attention to tone in written communication. Tension may be rising when students use more emotion-focused words.


University of Michigan

For students- the guide for working in groups

CRLT- Guidelines for discussing difficult or high-stakes topics

Other Resources

Faculty Focus – Managing controversy in an online classroom

University of Maryland- Guide for sensitive topics 


Clark, C. M., Werth, L., & Ahten, S. (2012). Cyber-bullying and incivility in the online learning environment, Part 1: Addressing faculty and student perceptions. Nurse Educator. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNE.0b013e31825a87e5