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Basic Conflict Resolution Skills: Technology Conflict: Unpacking the Human Conflict

Technology Conflict

Basic Conflict Resolution Skills: Technology Conflict: Unpacking the Human Conflict

What You May Be Feeling Right Now

With technology conflict, you may be experiencing chronic fatigue, outright anger with technology, or a vague sense that the technology you use makes you uncomfortable but you cannot explain why. This survey article attempts to assess the problem of conflict with technology, and the human conflict behind it, explore the underlying issues better, and help you find ways to cope with your technology conflict.

Why We Experience Technology Conflict

Technology is an enormous source of conflict for many people. Technology takes human conflict and adds a layer of complexity. Essentially, in trying to get our needs met, we are using an imperfect, constantly changing conduit in which to communicate and effectuate our needs. When the conduit breaks or slows down, we get frustrated and often angry.

Change creates stress. Not getting our needs met adds to this stress. Evolutionarily speaking, we are not used to so much change, so fast, and so persistently. Life moved much slower even 10 years ago. So, when these factors are compounded with little exposure to the natural world, it is no wonder everyone is stressed and dependent on caffeine to just get through the day and feel like they are “keeping up”. Not surprisingly, just about everyone gets angry when his or her computer suddenly slows down.

One of the key problems with technology is that a computer or smartphone cannot intelligently communicate back to you. These technologies lack “soft factors”. We are left with just information, but not true human interaction. A 404-error page does not feel the same as someone telling you face-to-face, “I’m sorry, but we’re out of that flavor right now”.

Attraction to Tools

Anthropology reveals that humans are attracted to tools. We love tools and have been designing and building them ever since we could understand their utility. Over millennia, humans have viewed their tools of stone, bronze, gunpowder, and space technology as focal points of human achievement.

We always want to have the sharpest and brightest tool because we want to ensure our survival and dominate our competitors. Having the tools to give you a competitive edge essentially translates to one more meal to allow you to live longer and reproduce more successfully. This can be traced back to our core motivating force–reproduction.

If we believe our iPhone is going to help us do things more efficiently to get that meal quicker, our “lizard brain” believes we have to have it to help us survive and win the evolution race.

Technology Addiction

Technology addiction is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to address here. Sometimes, addiction to technology can be traced to attempts to escape conflicts in the real world. For some people, the distinction between the real world and the virtual world can become blurred. With enough immersion in technology, the virtual world can even seem to become more important or more “real” than the real world.

In one study, people who were deeply immersed in technology began to apply the rules of the virtual world to situations in the real world. This phenomenon, known as the “Tetris Effect”, can occur when someone is so completely immersed in a virtual world that when they do unplug, they see the real world in a similar manner. When subjects played Tetris for multiple hours each day over the course of a week, they noticed that they started processing the real world in a Tetris-like manner, for example, by organizing shipping crates in Tetris-like ways (Stickgold, et. al., 2000).

Substituting or channeling on-line technology conflicts for real world conflicts may be a consequence of technology immersion. The conflicts faced in the on-line world can also seem less daunting than those in the real world, in large part due to perceived anonymity and lack of social consequences in the virtual world. When someone decides to post a particularly virulent, obscenity-laced, angry comment on a news report, their anonymity can protect them from rebuke.

Most people would never use offensive language when interacting face-to-face, because of the social, and possibly physical, altercations that could occur as a consequence of their behavior. The Internet provides a “safe” space to unleash true and raw emotion. The emotions expressed online can sometimes be traced to unexpressed and/or misplaced emotion that carry over from the real world.

As Sherry Turkle, psychologist and MIT professor of the social studies of science and technology department revealed to the Wall Street Journal: “we’re less inhibited online because we don’t have to see the reaction of the person we’re addressing”. Turkle noted that since such a communication environment makes it more difficult to “see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other” (Bernstein, 2013).

Because our technology conduits for communication are relatively new and the devices themselves are seen as an unthinking, unfeeling machines or “toys” as Dr. Turkle has observed, people who engage in conflict online are lulled into thinking that there are no consequences, or boundaries, for their emotional expression. Most people keep such thoughts to themselves, but the internet has revealed an overwhelming amount of emotion, most of if strongly negative, that is not being addressed in the real world.

A recent Wall Street Journal article acknowledged that even within the business community, the internet has become a very uncivil place where people reveal and destructively express themselves, without awareness, of consequences. (Bernstein, 2012) Further, many older users have complained about younger users who make online interactions rude and embarrassing.

Wilcox and his researchers (2013) conducted five experiments, which revealed that subjects who focused on friends with strong social ties while browsing their social network enhanced their self-esteem. The researchers also found that the increase in self-esteem, though momentary, reduced self-control. This study suggests that if one browses the internet constantly through the day, a normal level of self-control is reduced and may lead to impulsive and thoughtless interactions with others, consequently triggering more incidents of conflict.

Technology alone is not precisely the problem. Our communication and other technologies provide a complex conduit through which our primary conflicts, often pre-existing and deeply rooted, are being played out. Adding technology to the already complex emotional and social mix has the effect of accentuating some types of conflict, while diminishing others.

Better behavior is not precisely the only answer either. Addressing the underling conflicts, which are unmet needs and interests, could be part of the solution. One of the primary aims of mediation is to help parties find common ground in order to resolve their conflict. Another aim is to find creative solutions to getting needs and interests met, which is typically the source of most conflict.

In order to get at needs and interests and authentically begin to address them, we must examine power imbalances between individuals and between groups.

When beginning to unpack technology conflict, what emerges is a need to manage the deeper-rooted human conflicts that are at the crux of our conflicts with technology.

Technology must be integrated into the solution because it has become such an integral part of modern society. Our devices have become veritable “appendages”. Technology cannot be ignored because it provides great social utility. We would be wise to adapt innovative solutions to resolving conflict, without completely eliminating the use of our technologies.

Why Managing Technology Conflict is Important 

Engaging with technology triggers real physiological and psychological effects. How you respond to dysfunctional technology can greatly affect your relationships. For instance, if you are having trouble uploading an important attachment for a mission critical work document at 7:00 P.M. on a Friday evening when your family is eager to start vacation, this may trigger a conflict about what, or rather who, you really love.

For your health and harmony with others, you would be well served by learning to manage technology stress and the human conflict behind it. Not only does it communicate professionalism, but it also offers the opportunity to earn the respect of others who may not be in control of their emotional expressions of stress.

Sources of Technology Conflict

Social Pressures

Social pressures to engage with technology in the U.S. are particularly strong. These range from social ostracism on a political level– with news articles insinuating that criminals are particularly vile because they appear to be Luddites who shun any technology, including Facebook– to private ridicule about someone’s old flip phone.

Apple’s marketing is particularly interesting to dissect for its ability to make consumers bond to its product, in large part, by promoting tribal loyalty and affiliation to unify a particular consumer: wealthy, college educated, and independent-minded or “different” (a particularly American trait). Ironically, by amassing this loyal tribe, one of Apple’s core values of individuality has been diluted and has led to a degree of “brand fatigue”. What was unique and rebellious, no longer is.

Career pressures abound as well with companies insisting that employees be “on” at all times by being available on company-issued or company-subsidized devices. There is pressure to not put the phone away. Many people reading this article are in the position that they will not be able put their phone away or not check email constantly because their jobs demand it. By contract, they may even be legally bound to be “tethered” to their device(s).

Anthropomorphization of Technology

One of the consequences of technology advancement is the anthropomorphizing, or the assigning of human-like qualities to technology. This goes beyond the “gigapet” fad of the late 1990s. Observe how we have to constantly tend to our devices, and how the needs of these devices have begun to mimic human needs.

For instance, the human need for cleanliness manifests itself in our technologies at the Best Buy smartphone spa service. A narrow range of room temperature is necessary to prevent overheating your laptop. Observe how people often handle their devices with great care and sometimes even greater attention than their children.

Economically, technology has created another “other mouth to feed”; with regular monthly bills for service and maintenance that rival real world needs such as groceries, utilities, or rent.

How To Manage Technology Conflict

STEP #1: Assess Where You Are On The Technology Comfort Spectrum

Generally, the idea behind identifying where you fall on the spectrum of comfort with technology is not to assign a label as much as to more accurately provide a frame of reference for your stress. On one end of the spectrum would be someone who shuns technology, and is unlikely to be reading this online on a computer, but may be reading it in a hard copy form.

On the other end of the spectrum would be someone who perhaps self-identifies as part of his or her computer, or who equates his or her computer with human companionship. People on this end of the spectrum may spend a significant portion of their income sustaining an immersive technology lifestyle.

Assess what types of triggers “set you off”

>Ask yourself if any of the following triggers “set you off”:

  • Speed (too slow, or too fast)
  • Conflict with creators (e.g., application dysfunction leading to bugs and crashes, or applications changing too fast)
  • Conflict with provider/vendor (e.g., anger at your cell provider)
  • Conflict with technology systems (e.g., frustration with underlying issues of company control)
  • Conflict with peers/others (e.g., feeling that Facebook creates a social burden; or parents badgering you to stop using your smartphone)

>Ask, “Where is the trigger really coming from?”

  • Is the trigger really an anxiety you have about a deadline? Going deeper, is it really anxiety about your job security?
  • Is the trigger really a disagreement you have with a person?
  • Is the trigger really a discomfort about the speed of technology change and how it makes you feel “out of touch, ignorant or left behind”?

STEP #2: Activate Mindfulness

Being aware and focusing on the present, in your body, and managing your energy (discussed further below) are the keys to gaining the emotional control you may be seeking. There are several different ways you can activate mindfulness, but one of the most powerful ways is through simple breathing and meditation.

Simple Breathing

Simple Breathing is simply becoming aware of your breathing. You can do it anywhere, anytime, discreetly, and for free. A highly effective and simple technique involves what I call the “Simple Breath”. One repetition is the following:

1)    Breathe in through your nose for 6 seconds, expanding your belly

2)    Hold for 3 seconds

3)    Exhale the air out of your mouth for 6 seconds.

One set is 4 reps. If you are feeling moderate anger, try doing at least 2 sets. If you are feeling strong anger, try doing 4 sets, but don’t hyperventilate and pass out.

Regular, ideally daily, meditation can really help you activate mindfulness much more quickly and easily. Simple meditations can truly make a difference.  More advanced, yet still easy, meditations can accelerate your abilities.

Simple Meditation 

Technology can make you feel disassociated with your body and create many communication issues as a consequence. Part of what this Simple Meditation exercise does is help you re-connect with your body.

For a very simple meditation in the morning try this:

  1. Set a “gentle”, non-annoying alarm for 10 minutes
  2. While still lying in bed upon waking, inhale deeply twice, and clear your mind (if you are too tired and falling back asleep, you will want to try to reduce your sleep debt and try this exercise sitting up)
  3. Focus on how your body feels and let random thoughts come and then go
  4. Breathe normally
  5. When the alarm sounds, take two more cleansing breaths, and then proceed with your day

Engage mindfulness, and get back into the present, and in your body, and focus now, whenever you are finding yourself feeling tension or anxiety with a conflict—either with a person or with technology.

STEP #3: Manage Technology Exposure

Managing exposure to technology is critical. Here are some key guidelines:


When you unplug, it means cutting all exposure to technology. No phone, no iPad, no media, no TV, no computer, no news, no music.

When You Unplug: Respect and Honor Yourself

When taking a break it is tempting to check your email, play a game, or read an e-book. Close the computer, shut off the phone, get up and walk away from the device. Really. Because you will find that replenishing is more efficient and effective when you truly and completely unplug.

Unplugging offers at least two good reasons for honoring it. First, you will replenish your energy. Second, you will be honest with yourself. If you continually break your promises to yourself, it creates a feeling of failure and self-sabotage. It is similar to those who try to diet and then ‘fall off the wagon’, feeling worse than before. These feelings can then promote binging.

Similarly, when you do not respect the boundaries you set for yourself with technology it becomes difficult to trust yourself. The brain comes to believe that your promises are meaningless, causing you to slip into unhealthy habits that become a habitual behavioral pattern.

“But I can’t do my job without being plugged in 24/7: I’m a programmer!” Just because someone codes for a living does not mean they are psychologically “broken” because they want to do their job well. Typically, people who make these kinds of exclamations are really saying that they are afraid that they will get fired if they are not working during every waking moment.

Also, those who claim, “but I love what I’m doing, I just want to be on the computer 24/7” may be covering up for a personal need for human interaction, but cannot find it and therefore seek distraction and connection with others using the computer. Others still have such difficulty relating and interacting with people that they find technology particularly appealing to retreat to because it gives them a sense of control and power.

Ask the perhaps frightening question: why does unplugging scare you? The answer may hold clues as to how to proceed.

Unplug Before Bed 

For at least an hour before going to bed, make sure you unplug. Entirely. Phyllis Zee is a neuroscience professor at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology. She believes that light emanating from devices such as iPads and smartphones mimic sunlight resetting your circadian rhythm, or biological clock, which delays the ability to sleep (Sutter, 2013).

If you are using a tablet or phone in bed, instead of winding down for replenishing sleep, your body is receiving a light signal that it is time to ‘wake up’. This can disrupt your sleep, and potentially create a domino effect of other sleep-related problems. Sleep is the foundation for good health and if you are seeking to boost your energy, try unplugging before bed.

Try Maintaining Separate Computers for Work/Play

Try designating a “play” computer for recreational activity, and leave your work computer for work alone. This creates a boundary between work and play, and may allow you to better manage your time spent on each. For many entrepreneurs, creating and maintaining the boundaries between work and play can be extremely difficult. However, separate computers may help provide the separation that is necessary to promote better use habits.

Time & Energy Management

Managing your time and energy as it relates to technology is important in controlling your exposure to technology and can better help you manage the conflict.

Instead of doing long stretches of work with no breaks, and eating lunch at your desk as you work, try breaking up the day into smaller chunks. Anecdotally, one technique successfully used by science writers for producing journal articles more efficiently is the Pomodoro technique.

Organization & The Pomodoro Technique

Make sure you take some time to organize your work and workflow process. If you are an entrepreneur, you may benefit from creating an even more structured schedule for yourself to identify your goals and create the best framework for you to accomplish those goals. Experiment with what works; sometimes over-scheduling creates more stress, but the beauty of owning your business is the freedom of creating systems that work for you.

Essentially, the Pomodoro technique involves working for 25 minutes, entirely focused, without interruption, and then taking a 5 minute (unplug) break when you do not put any energy or thought to what you were working on.

This would be a good time to close your computer and avoid other technology, get up and stretch, step outside and see some nature, use the restroom, or go get a snack. You repeat this sequence 4 times, for a total of a 2-hour chunk, and then take a longer break (at least 30 minutes).

Managing Expectations

When we don’t get what we want or need from our devices, that instant, we get frustrated. Generally, people who are on devices more than 8 hours a day are at higher risk for higher stress levels. These folks are making their livelihood on the computer and have no easily viable alternatives.

If this is the case for you, it may help to remind yourself that crashes and slow connectivity are inevitable when dealing with these imperfect technological tools. Setting realistic expectations as to how much work you can accomplish for the day given inevitable technological hiccups can go far to help ease stress.


Thought professionals typically need to produce their work on a computer. Individuals such as programmers and writers are also tied to work that does not enable them to move about freely throughout the day. Unfortunately, computer dependence in a job also creates a secondary problem of a sedentary lifestyle that can wreak havoc on your body. As humans, we evolved to be able to walk very long distances.

So make sure you that you take some time, every day, to get out of your seat and walk. Even if it is 5 minutes in one direction and then 5 minutes back. You may be surprised how much walking can help you. Interestingly, I found that once I dropped my gym and started walking daily, I was in better shape than after nearly a decade of regular 3-times-a-week exercise!


Here are some strategies to get control of your email.

First, dedicate two times in the day to batch process email messages.

Second, do not check email until you have completed some of the most important or difficult work you need to accomplish for the day. Resist the temptation to check email.

Third, try putting all old emails in a single Archive folder; and use this folder as the one folder for all of your email. Use Google search tool to find old emails. Try putting a copy there instead of sorting your messages into folders. IBM Research discovered that using the search function was slightly more efficient than searching through folders. Productivity experts have also discovered that creating multiple folders does not save time (Whittaker, 2013).


Getting control of phone calls is similar to email and there are a couple of effective strategies.

First, as with email, try to batch process calls. Try going for a walk with a memo pad and pen and batch process your calls so you can get in some exercise while handling other’s needs. You can also benefit from the side benefit of delivering some endorphins while on your walk, which can be especially helpful when dealing with a particularly challenging client, partner, or coworker.

Second, if you can afford a voicemail answering service, it could be a good investment because a human will answer your calls instead of a machine. When a machine pick up happens, it can be extremely irritating to clients because it presents a barrier to getting their needs met.

Step #4: People Management: Managing Your Emotions With Others

As discussed earlier, corporate culture can lead employees to believe that they must be tethered to technology 24/7. Technology itself is typically not the source of conflict, but rather the feeling of a lack of control, power, freedom, and unfettered boundaries. These emotions can create conflict.

If you believe and feel you are powerless, you will experience those emotions. This type of conflict is extremely harmful for productivity, your health, and it can kill morale.

But there is a solution. While you cannot control how other people feel, think, or act, remember that you always have control of how you perceive and respond to someone else’s expressions of emotion. You get to decide how you will respond.

You can authentically choose to take your power back by taking pro-active steps to balance unplug time with technology exposure. You can take back the power that you always had.

People Are Not Machines

At the crux of this conundrum is the fallacy that people can run like machines. Always on, and perform flawlessly, day in and day out. A century-old Industrial Revolution mindset haunts our culture’s every-day decisions and self-worth. And we aspire to be invincible like comic book heroes and there is enormous pressure to “succeed” in American culture. An unhealthy obsession with success creates enormous stress and the accompanying health illnesses.

Instead, aim for personal bests and achievable, realistic, goals. This strategy can help you avoid burnout and overall satisfaction or fulfillment with your work and your achievement.

If you believe you have no choices with technology, none will appear. But remember—you always have choices and you possess the power to change your reality. You just have to truly make an authentic choice. It is often simply a question of conquering your fear.


Interested in learning how to further develop your conflict resolution skills? Consider signing up for notices (never spam) of our latest articles delivered to your inbox. If you have a friend who might find this information helpful, please feel free to share.



Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Why We Are So Rude on Social Media: Online Browsing Lowers Self-Control and Is Linked to Higher Debt, Weight”, The Wall Street Journal 1 Oct. 2012 [Internet]. [cited 17 Sep 2013] Available from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444592404578030351784405148.html

Stickgold, R, Malia, A; Maguire, D; Roddenberry, D; O’Connor, M. 2000. Replaying the game: hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics”. Science [Internet]. [cited 17 Sep 2013]; 290 (5490): 350–353.  Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11030656

Sutter, John D. “Trouble Sleeping? Maybe it’s Your iPad.” CNN Tech 13 May 2010; [Internet]. [cited 17 Sep 2013] Available from: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/05/13/sleep.gadgets.ipad/index.html

Whittaker S, Matthews T, Cerruti J, Badenes H, Tang J. 2011. Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding. IBM Research Paper presented at the meeting of the CHI [Internet]. [cited 17 Sep 2013]; pp. 3449-3458. Available from: http://people.ucsc.edu/~swhittak/papers/chi2011_refinding_email_camera_ready.pdf

Wilcox K, Stephen A. 2013. Are close friends the enemy? Online social networks, self-esteem, and self-control. J Consum. Res. [Internet]. [cited 17 Sep 2013]; 40 (1). Available from: DOI: 10.1086/668794 http://www.ejcr.org/PDFs/newsletters/Curations5/Wilcox_Stephen.pdf



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