26 May 2011 ~ 6 Comments

How to approach dealing with conflict in your online community

Last week I covered 16 causes of conflict in your online community. When any of these occur, the best way to deal with conflict is not always obvious.

As a Community Manager, your first reaction to conflict might be stamp on it through moderation and banning, but you must remember that you don’t want to create an atmosphere where people feel their views are being suppressed.

To encourage growth in your community and avoid it turning stale, you need to maintain a healthy range of opinions and a diversity of thought. Of course there is a line where constructive and robust debate becomes conflict, which potentially destroy your carefully nurtured online community.

What makes our lives as Community facilitators complex is that resolving conflict isn’t always as black and white as straightforward moderation of content and exclusion of a or several users.  So we end up having to carefully balance allowing robust debate, promoting a variety of points of view, whilst allowing just enough conflict to allow the community membership to grow, but not so much it implodes.

Steps towards successful conflict resolution

Ultimately, when we are faced with conflict within our online community, we have to remember that it’s generally conflict between people, and not between concepts of ideas. Here are a few steps you can take as the referee Community Manager to defuse conflict and move the discussion onwards.

  • Once you have an idea of what the cause might be, you can start asking questions of the participants to try and help clear up any misunderstandings. Hopefully the problem is simply one of miscommunication and can be easily resolved.
  • Take a step back once you have identified the probable cause and have investigated the issue a bit deeper.  Giving yourself a it of distance will help you see the bigger picture and identify whether it’s a storm in a teacup or something that may cause your online community damage.
  • Address the emotional aspect of the argument. Anger and reconciliation don’t make good bedfellows and will result in simmering bitterness and resentment, which will ultimately explode in another debate. Shutting down the discussion temporarily will give everyone involved a chance to breathe and reflect.
  • If the problem stems from cultural or other background differences, then you can privately encourage participants to try and take into account the context for someone’s position in a debate.
  • Limiting the escalation of the conflict into name-calling territory may be necessary, and this is where the tricky question of when and how much to moderate and/or ban overly troublesome community members comes in.  The important part is to make sure you stick to your guidelines so you are not accused of favouritism, but I always find a lighter hand works best.
  • Encourage communication in a non-judgmental way. Sometimes people need to get things off their chest, and you can ask them to do it in a non-accusatory manner. Whether you ask your membership to do this publicly or privately is your call, as it depends on the dynamics of your community.

And a couple more tips

Throughout all of this, I would suggest another two tips to help you achieve the best possible outcome:

  • Always communicate with users by using “I” rather than “You”. If I say “I feel this discussion is descending into a disgraceful free-for-all”, I am a lot less likely to incite feelings of defensiveness on the part of participants in the community. Encourage others to do the same rather than load responsibility for the argument on others by making statements starting with “You”.

Finally, remember that free speech does not apply to Online Communities – you are in charge!

Do you have any tried and tested methods for dealing with conflict in your online community?

[photo by Bex.Walton]

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