Hugh Lashbrooke

Community builder by day, tabletop game designer by night.

When Good People Go Bad: Mediating Community Conflict

At the CMX Connect Cape Town meetup last week, we had a great chat about conflict resolution within communities – whether they are online or offline. The format of the evening was very much discussion-based, and I had some slides to go along with it that highlighted the steps towards successfully resolving community conflict.

The first thing to recognise when working in community and handling difficult situations, is that there are two broadly-defined types of conflict – it will either be between the company and a community member, or between two (or more) community members. In this case I’m using ‘company’ to refer to the community program as it is managed – in my case that would be the WordPress project, but it could refer to the company you work for, or yourself as the organiser of a local community group.

With that in mind let’s a look at a widely applicable process for mediating community conflicts of all types.

Step 0: Lay the Groundwork

This actually needs to be done before you encounter any conflict in your community (hence the step number being zero). You need to establish the rules, guidelines, and code of conduct for your community up front. Without some sort of codified rules you won’t have any source of truth to which you can refer people when trouble arises.

Your rules need to be clear, comprehensive and direct, leaving no wiggle room for people to find loopholes. If someone is acting against these rules, then they’ll likely try to argue against their validity in the first place, so in addition to having the rules you also need to understand why they exist in the first place.

Step 1: Reach Out

Before you can proceed with managing any type of conflict, the first thing you need to do is reach out to the affected parties. This serves multiple purposes – not the least of which is that it allows you to confirm that everyone involved is out of harm’s way, and to reassure them that you are working on the issue.

Reaching out also gives you a chance to gather all the information you need up front, allowing you to make informed decisions down the line.

In some cases it may be wise not to reach out to the main perpetrator right away, so you do need to use some judgement here. In any case – take your time to make sure you have a complete understanding of the situation.

Step 2: Set a Deadline

If you’ve ever worked in software development you’ll know about the dark art of estimating development time – extensive project management methods have been developed purely to make this easier, and it’s still a challenge. When mediating community conflicts you’ll encounter the same difficulty with working out how long the process will take you, but that doesn’t make it any less important to set a deadline for when you will brings matters to a conclusion.

Setting a deadline serves multiple purposes – aside from giving you a date to work towards, it also holds you accountable so that you deliver the outcome of your mediation in a timely manner. The key is not just setting an internal deadline, but to share it with all of the affected parties in the conflict. This helps them to know when things will conclude and when they can expect a way forward to be presented.

You may miss the deadline by a few days (conflicts can cause many unexpected situations after all), but you should try as hard as possible to stick to the date you have marked and to ensure that your mediation is complete by then.

Step 3: Discuss Internally

At this stage you have all of the information you need and you’ve set a deadline for when you will brings things to a conclusion. Now you need to get to the real meat of things – working out how you will handle the matter.

This will be very different depending on the situation, so it’s tough to prescribe any specific steps here. That being said, it’s good to remain calm and fair as far as possible – as community manager it’s likely that you care deeply about the people and program that you’re working with, but don’t let that cloud your judgement. Try to remain objective as you can and be aware of any biases you may be harbouring that could affect the situation.

Be mindful of your feelings.

Mace Windu, Jedi Master

Something that we on the WordPress Community Team have found useful many times at this stage, is to involve a neutral third party in the mediation. This not only helps you with objectivity, but can also allow you to gain contextual understanding that you never could have otherwise. This is especially helpful when you’re mediating a conflict across countries or cultures.

Once you have discussed the issue and worked out a plan of action, what you need to do is draft any content that will come as a result. That would include emails that need to be sent, public announcements about what has been going on, or even scripting out conversations that may need to be had. This can be done later, but if you prepare it ahead of time you can have others on your team weigh in to make sure your message is as unambiguous and targeted as possible.

Something to note, and this may just be my grammar-loving mindset, is that correct grammar is incredibly important in these messages – not only does it appear more professional, it also helps to avoid misunderstandings in your message.

Step 4: Follow Through

Now that you know what you need to do, and you have your next steps planned out, you need to execute the game plan you formulated. The specifics will depend on the situation of course, but by this stage you should have all your content drafted and ready to go.

The first thing to do is to reach out to the affected parties once again, and let them know what is going to happen. After that, and once there is some resolution, it’s important to inform the rest of the community about what happened, why it did, and what actions you have taken to resolve it. It pays to be prudent at this stage – while transparency is key to effectively managing any community, in cases of conflict you may need to keep some details undisclosed in order to protect the people involved.

Step 5: Follow Up

Once everything is done and the conflict has (hopefully) died down, it’s usually a good idea to let things settle and give people some time to recover. After a while though, you need to check in with them to see how things are going. This is an important step because it shows that you care about your community and you value its members beyond just dealing with specific cases of mediation. You may also find that when you talk to people some weeks or months after the incident in question, they have more contextual information for you that wasn’t available at the time or they weren’t willing to divulge in the moment.

The amount of time you allow to pass before following up on things will depend on the situation, so use your discretion to make the call here. The goal is to check up on folks to make sure they’re alright, have accepted the result of the mediation (whether they agree with the decision or not), and to see if they have any feedback about the process for you.

In amongst these steps there are many nuances that you will need to take into account – this post isn’t intended to be a fix-all for all instances of conflict mediation but it will give you a path you can follow to successfully navigate some of the most difficult times you will face as a community manager.

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