Confrontation is a part of every community—from families to neighborhoods to online groups. But conflict and communication do not have to be detrimental. In fact, they can be a healthy way to help a community grow. Just like in a relationship, communication within your online community is key. Clarity, honesty and kindness are just as important when dealing with online communities and activists, if not more so because of the all-too-familiar sense of anonymity that pervades the Internet and the lack of body language cues.
Here are five ways to approach conflict in your online community so that you come out of it as a stronger unit as opposed to a damaged one.
- Keep Calm
This is a really simple place to start when it comes to conflict. If any of you have taken conflict resolution or tried mediation of any kind, you’ll be familiar with the “I” statement. Instead of, “You are being disruptive,” try something like “I think this discussion is getting off topic.” I like this technique because it not only feels less confrontational, but just by thinking about what your statement should be, it allows you as a manager to take a moment, take a breath, think about what the best response is and then respond.
It’s unlikely that any community manager reading this is going to play games within their communities or get overly defensive. But sometimes we slip! Usually this is due to us trying responding too quickly to a rude or angry person. Any personal tool that you can use to allow yourself to take a step back and keep calm before you reply is a good one. As a result, your community will “do as you do,” and the tense atmosphere may lessen.
- Stick to Your Rules and Guidelines
Online forums for collaboration and discussion vary greatly in how they are policed. Some sites encourage participation by allowing for anonymity and simply policing for threats of violence, racist comments, promotion of illegal activity, etc. Studies have even shown that anonymity fosters community participation, as users don’t feel like they are singled out. Other sites simply shut down the discussion by not allowing comments or otherwise limiting the communication channels—like Popular Science did when they cited that “comments can be bad for science.”
But for most thriving online communities, there is a mix. Most people have usernames and some have avatars. And while it is often highlighted that anonymity can make it easier for people to start fights online or even become trolls, the best communities will become self-policing. And the way for you as a community manager to help foster that self-policing is by having very well-defined rules and guidelines for how your community operates.
Generally, these are not too difficult to do—make sure you’ve covered the basic things that are not acceptable in your community. Then take the time to set a standard of respect and collaboration and define a common goal (more on that later). With clear and easy-to-follow definitions of standards, your enforcement will be easier and your community will help you out with some policing of their own.
- Deal With Individual Issues Separately
As much as we hate to admit it, sometimes the problem is simply one person. Your job as a community manager is not to publicly shame that person or just outright ban them, but to help them integrate into the community as best you can.
In dealing with community issues on Care2 Petitions, it is often the case that an individual activist will take to one of our community forums (sometimes even petition comments) to air grievances, try to work out a technical problem they are having, or even just be a troll. For such a large community, this is inevitable. For smaller communities, it can happen on a lesser scale and an individual can simply be disagreeing with the rest of the group in an aggressive way.
The important element here is knowing when to break off into a separate conversation with just that person. It’s often not helpful to allow one person to soapbox on an issue within a public forum, even if others in the community are responding to it. Some people respond better to one-on-one attention, and you might even find that their issue is easy to solve once you get more details.
- Remind Your Community About Why You’re All There
Conflict often becomes strongest when each individual in the community feels so passionately about the issue that they want to make the effort to have the best possible outcome and believe they have the right solution. I’ve seen this time and time again—a coalition of people comes together to solve a problem, and each person has her own way of approaching the solution. But of course this good intention can get lost in the communication, which can become aggressive and sometimes cruel if someone feels that the group is going against their recommendations.
When discussions get heated, it can be helpful to take a pause, bring the discussion back to your main objectives, and remind everyone in the group that you’re all working toward a common goal. This “reset button” of sorts for the discussion can be extremely powerful for allowing everyone in the group to take a step back and hopefully be able to make space for the opinions of others. When I do this, I don’t just remind people that we are in it together, but actually refer back to what our original goal was (and say it/type it). In a way, it forces everyone in the discussion to take a breath and think about what they are really after.
- Know When to Engage and When NOT to Engage
Community managers all have their favorite horror story anecdote of companies, organizations, or sites that consistently try to silence their dissenters instead of engaging. On a public relations level, and especially in crisis, this almost always backfires. Confronting conflict and responding in a well-planned, calm, and detailed way is always the best way to go.
But … you can’t win ‘em all. Trolls will be trolls, and trolls should be banned. Unless someone is contributing at least some valuable input to the conversation, it’s really best just to remove them.