Inhabiting the same spaces as people who make you feel uncomfortable

It can happen all the time offline – at social events, travelling on public transport, also online too. We naturally have people that we feel more at ease with than others for loads of completely valid reasons. If the sense of being ‘in’ somewhere public where you feel uncomfortable by the presence of other/s, it can be difficult to work out how best to manage the situation, especially if it’s a space you will be returning to on a regular basis.

There are many different aspects to conflict and resolving it – I am no expert but if you have read either this blog or my previous one, this will not be news, but I am going to try and apply some of martial arts thinking about how this could also be managed in an online space. I have had and will no doubt continue to be in situations where I feel uncomfortable so I guess this post is helping me to think about what I would do.

Disclaimer, I am a 5 kup which means that I am a plant that is still growing its leaves…

There are many martial arts practitioners with incredible experience who could do a better job – and if it was a situation which was potentially life-threatening I would seek their advice, but for the purposes of this post about online spaces , will give it a go – a brief look at possible scenarios which could make us uneasy and potential options for managing the conflict both with the people  and the conflict within ourselves. It is less likely in a work-related online space that you could be or feel threatened to that level but not impossible?

1. You have not had a lot of experience with using different technologies and may have had limited or no experience with using email or the web. You join an online community / social networking space and add a comment to a discussion, blogpost, wiki page. Someone responds to that comment either

  • challenges in a way that you think is an over-reaction / is unnecessarily critical,
  • says something which you are unsure how to react to in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual, online shared area – are they being sarcastic, making a joke
  • involves others from the community in their response or says that others think that way…
  • uses language or words that you consider to be rude, offensive and/or possibly threatening, but you are unsure whether others would feel the same as you

If that is your first contribution to a community and you are unfamiliar with using them generally, it is likely that you would feel uncomfortable – who wouldn’t ! Depending on your level of discomfort you may feel reluctant to ask others’ opinions in the community because you may not have had much interaction with anyone there yet, you may not have the confidence or trust in another person there that you can go to for advice. Even the best community managers or facilitators will not always know that someone could be feeling uncomfortable, unhappy if it is not something immediately obvious such as explicit language etc

Developing this further, this could be a shared space that you are expected either directly or indirectly, to participate in and contribute to for work-related purposes. Or it could be a space where the topic is so interesting that you want to return to and take part in regularly either for personal learning or because it will help you do your job better.

2. You have some experience with using social networks and taking part in online activities. However you enter a shared area and discover that there is someone there that you have for whatever reason, not had a good relationship / connection with in the past.  You could have an area of dispute that is still current or it could be that it was resolved a long time ago but you have not had any connection with that person since then. As above it may be an area that you would like to return to and participate in regularly.

3. As with 2 you have some experience with using social networks and online activities, you have joined a network / community, that you want to take part in regularly. Someone could react to a contribution you have made as in 1, this could be someone you know or someone you don’t. You could already be well-known to others in the community who may have positive or negative opinions about you as a person prior to ‘1’ occuring.

Charlotte Burton outlined five strategies for dealing with conflict – avoidance, accomodation, compete, compromise, collaborate in an brief but excellent post a few years ago 1 Not going to discuss them all here and recommend if you have a couple of minutes reading/re-reading and its of interest

Avoidance is often one that comes up in martial arts discussions – most experienced practitioners will suggest – if you are in danger, then run away if you can, it is not necessary to be a hero and suppose you try some moves but it doesn’t work – e.g. if someone is threatening you for money or worse – you have to decide what is worth trying to save and what to lose and obviously in extreme situations you will have seconds or less to make a decision.  One of the main series of moves in martial arts is blocking – i.e. someone is making an attacking move towards you and the ideal is to get out of the way.

So in this shared online area – what do you do – even open spaces can make people feel cornered ? As in previous posts, highly experienced martial arts practitioners advise: breathe – to slow yourself down, don’t react in haste…you probably have more alternatives than you think you have . It is much easier to breathe in an online space where an immediate response may not be considered  necessary. Everyone in a global community can be online at different times and everyone has different priorities so its considered to be perfectly acceptable.

With avoidance, you have to decide what is it worth to not respond or to leave the space, how will this affect your working relationships with others, are you concerned about your reputation both on and offline, how well-known are you to larger groups of people. To think about this may take some time and you may want to seek additional help from those outside of the same spaces or areas – these days unfortunately or fortunately you can end up being in multiple shared spaces and contact lists with the people that you may be uncomfortable with, so this may be more difficult.

There is a world of difference between avoiding a discussion, avoiding a person and/or avoiding spaces. Depending on the level of unease you are experiencing, any previous history with that person. When you block in a martial arts move, you are not just moving yourself out of the way but also defending yourself, moving that aggression by using your physical energy – however it is a technique that requires practice. You could also yell as part of that move. Transferring that to behaving online, how do you get someone’s online fist away from your face and reduce the likelihood of it re-occuring ?

Now that we have voice comments, you could technically yell at them, but how would that be perceived by everyone else?

Time for a bit of online aikido – whereas for some martial arts you use your strength – in aikido (think Steven Seagal) you use your opponent’s strength – you do not have to exercise powerful movements yourself, just position yourself correctly and remove the threat. Oh if only it were that easy, we don’t all have Steven Seagals around to help us when we need it or we may not have had any advice or experience offered for managing situations. So maybe:

Try and work out what is bothering you, is it what they have said, any particular words or style that have caused you to react internally. How much has this affected you, are you finding yourself returning to think about often afterwards and for how long. If it does reach a point where it is significantly concerning, then action of some kind will be necessary. Do you completely avoid, or post a reply to someone (maybe getting someone we trust to review it first, if we are fortunate enough to find someone within those timescales).

Or if you have not actually interacted with that person yet but have previous history – so may feel threatened  by their presence? Joe Hyams explains that whilst in training with Bruce Lee, to recognise a true close is that person to you 2 You are the only person who knows how much of a threat it is, your previous experience with that person and based on current experience of being in the same space – have they moved or reacted to being in the same place as you in any way – that you consider threatening. If they have it is not always necessary to try and doing anything other than move away – doesn’t have to be a big movement, just enough. If they are not doing or saying anything then it is not threatening ?

As above, if your previous experience with that person left you feeling not as strong as that person, then use their strength if they do ‘attack’ you again. The very little experience I have with aikido type movements, is that they are very slight – you are putting very small amounts of pressure on them physically, its about speed and positioning yourself and the good news is – we are in control of our own position and speed – if you don’t feel in a good position – move to one where you do. One of my instructors can do a movement where he can put one finger on our arms and can cause someone to nearly collapse in a lot of pain because he understands about points of physical pressure within the human body – that can cause an opponent a lot of pain – I have yet to experience this particular delight – but I have seen him do this with others.

I’m not suggesting that we are going to put ourselves in a position of conflict online where we wish to cause someone pain, we need to put ourselves in a position where if a threat does arise, we are comfortable with dealing with it because we understand about maybe psychological, emotional pressure points – again we don’t need to make our opponent collapse (if they have deeply upset us in the past, the thought may cross our minds) on the floor, but we do not need to use strong movements, they can be very gentle – timing, speed, position.

Have barely got into this but conscious of time. I am also hoping to do a corner judges course in September – so if outlining rules for conflict / debates – it would definitely include – no kicks below the belt and damage to your credibility can’t be quickly lessened with ice. May return to then if not before. I have posted this on a previous blog last year but I think these are still very relevant not just to taekwondo but behaving and working in online spaces too:


1. Burton C, 2005, Difficult Relationships at Work – Dealing with Workplace Conflict, available at

2. Hyams J (1979), p74, Zen in the Martial Arts, Bantam Books

3. Courtesy of, available at


  1. Hi Nicola,
    Wonderful post with great analysis.
    I like the way you juxtaposed -martial arts and managing conflicts. There are the 36 strategies with Sun Tze, and the last but most effective strategy is to flee (the flight response), in case of life threatening, or enormous overpowering that one couldn’t endure , that may be the most difficult sort of conflicts which could not be resolved. Is sensemaking an alternative “term” used nowadays carrying similar tones? Don’t know…
    Thanks for your great insights.

  2. Thank you John, for your lovely response. Yes I agree re difficult conflicts. People ask sometimes – you have been doing martial arts for over a year, if you were threatened as in physically, would you freeze, fly, fight. I don’t know whether anything positive would happen in those seconds but learning more will hopefully help in terms of understanding and managing energy etc I guess learning more in those situations is a physical kind of sense-making albeit at top speed.

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