29 June 2010 ~ 2 Comments

The importance of maintaining impartiality during conflict resolution

moderator impartiality mediator conflict resolutionAn Online Community Manager needs to possess a strong grasp of communication skills to navigate the sometimes tortuous interactions they will have with their company’s customers.

When managing people on mass-user platforms such as forums, chat-rooms or within blog comments, you will have no doubt have witnessed two or more community members at each other’s throat, ultimately resulting in both sides pleading their case to you.

Whether negotiation, a stern word or a banning ends up being in order, you must be able to display impartiality, which is one of the more common aspects of the role of the moderator.

Easier said than done…

Of course, no-one is asking you to become an unfeeling automaton; we all have our own feelings and bias, but it is important to work in such a way that this bias is minimised in the period during which you consider how to resolve an issue between several members of your online community.

While it is impossible to be completely impartial, we can continually review what we think and feel about participants and the situation to maintain awareness of our natural inclination towards bias, and this is an important part of being an effective and fair moderator of online discussions.

It’s likely that if you have managed an online community for a while, you will get to know certain members more than others. There is a natural temptation to ‘take sides’ in an argument when we know one of the participants, but this will just entrench people into feelings of disillusionment and anger if this bias becomes apparent.

This leads to further problems in resolving clashes in your forum or chat-room later, in the worst case scenario losing you the respect you need from your members to successfully manage your community’s growth.

Try to rise above yourself and attain fairness

As a moderator, you may witness very unpleasant behaviour on the part of participants, much of which may go against your personal beliefs. Borderline racism, aggressive comments, anger, and ganging up will all occur and you need to be able to acknowledge your bias and avoid drawing conclusions before referring to your moderation guidelines and applying them. This will allow you to remain consistent in your behaviour and maintain the emotional distance required to be seen as fair and impartial.

Alternatively, you may see someone in your online community being victimised by others due to whatever personal trait others have taken offence to. This may be an incapacity to see their point of view, or poor spelling.

Due to this you would naturally feel protective towards the victim and deduce that others’ behaviour towards them is tantamount to bullying. However following this reasoning and castigating those being critical will lead to an escalation of the issue.

The right approach is often the hardest one

An impartial approach would be to support the victim in resolving the behaviour causing offence and reaching a compromise with those aggrieved, rather than allowing the issue to escalate and result in disciplinary action being taken, or encouraging the use of an “ignore” tool or advising others to cease communicating with the victim.

Attacking those reacting to the victim’s behaviour is more likely to lead to further attacks as they feel isolated in their opinions on suitable community behaviour, become defensive and take to baiting the victim or yourself. Then you will lose your impatiality fully as you come under attack and become much less effective, if at all, in resolving the dispute.

This example illustrates why impartiality is important to communicating effectively, by carefully considering our own prejudices and preconseptions. Our judgement may be affected by forum participants’ ability to spell or command of our native language, or we may be disturbed by chat-room members’ lifestyle.

Regardless of our biases, it is vital to apply decisions in when and how to enforce the moderation policy consistently and ensure our communication and fairness is effective and conscientious.

The bottom line is that you are the only person who can commit to taking stock of your personal views, assess whether they are affecting your judgement and taking action to rectify this in order to maintain your impartiality.

If you don’t do this, you have to accept you may be cultivating a clique rather than nurturing a community.

Have you been accused of not being impartial in your dealings with conflict in your online community?  How do you work towards being fair and consistent in your approach to conflict resolution?

Not sure how to maintain impartiality? Check out An exercise in practising impartiality as a Community Manager

[Photo by dbking]

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  • http://twitter.com/biGbELLAY Terry K

    Hey Blaise! You've brought up a topic that I haven't put a lot of thought into. Settling disputes between members is probably one of the hardest things to do (effectively) as a community manager. Through personal experiences, I know that setting your biases aside is not an easy thing to do. I believe the best thing to do to remain fair and consistent is to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, put yourself in each member's shoes, acknowledge their arguments but let them know your opinion for each point discussed, and then, make a final decision to resolve the conflict in the fairest way possible. Lastly, document how you handled the situation so if a similar situation is to arise in the future, you can remain consistent in your approach.

  • Marzie

    This is such an insightful post. Your summation about cultivating cliques rather than nurturing a community is pitch perfect.