How to Prevent Community Conflict Without Breaking Yourself (or Your Spirit!)

How to Prevent Community Conflict Without Breaking Yourself (or Your Spirit!)

Editor's Note: This is an adapted and updated article written by yours truly. An early version appeared on CMX Hub

In any community, conflict is inevitable. In fact, I want to encourage you not to shy away from conflict. When we manage it well, it becomes an opportunity. We can actually bring people closer together as they realize that they can weather hard times and come out stronger because of it. 

But there are two ways we must manage conflict when it does arise: both reactively after it happens and proactively every single day, to instill a resilient culture in our communities from the inside-out. 

Reactive community conflict management is about diffusing tense moments. That’s an important short-term skill to have (and one we discuss in client work a lot), but what we miss a lot is the second approach: how do we create that long-term core culture that resists conflict before it destroys what we've created?

What Does a Conflict-Resistant Core Culture Look Like?

Creating a conflict-resistant community is about controlled chaos.

Our members come in to a room - whether physical or digital - with days or years or decades of baggage, and we must hold that and not take it all in. What we see in many online communities, whether they exist in subreddits or Facebook Groups or private forums, is uncontrolled chaos: We see name-calling, quick retorts, unchecked harassment or breaking of guidelines. Conflict left unchecked rots the core culture of the community. 

To control online community conflict proactively, you need five key components:

  1. Guiding Principles
  2. Guidelines
  3. Strong Moderators
  4. Proactive Feedback
  5. Self-care
Preventing Conflict in Online Communities.png

You may have all or some of these, or you may have the beginnings of them and need a bit of a push to get you to a stronger foundation. 

First Component: Guiding Principles

Your guiding principles are simply your mission, vision, and values.

Mission

Creating a mission statement requires you to answer the question: What are your members gathering together to accomplish? Not only do you need to have a mission statement, but you also need to let people know how they are helping you accomplish that mission:

  • Can you put a number on it? (e.g. “We want 10,000 people to volunteer in their communities this year.”)
  • Can you measure that impact and report regularly on it back to the community? 

The final mission statement needs to fill in the blanks below:

  • ”We are going to ______ by _______”

 Vision

Creating a vision requires big-picture thinking. It requires you to answer the question: What will the future look like once you have accomplished your mission together?

The final vision statement should read as follows:

  • “We are creating a world in which _____”

Values

Values are integral to fighting against conflict proactively. But they are often not implemented correctly, either because they’re not public at all or because the leader(s) of a community don’t even live by the values that they tout. 

One great way to boil these down is to think of a member you consider to be a role model to others. What adjectives would you use to describe this person?

Pick up to 5 and list them:

  • Value 1:
  • Value 2:
  • Value 3:
  • Value 4:
  • Value 5:

The Rollout Plan:

Rolling out Guiding Principles usually happens within some sort of welcoming process or inside the Community Guidelines. Once they’re rolled out, they’re not done though. In fact, they should be a constant work in progress.

Questions to answer before publishing new guiding principles in your community:

  • How will you roll these Guiding Principles out?
  • Where will you collect feedback about them?
  • How often will you update them?
  • How will you hold yourself accountable to the values you create?
  • How will you keep people updated of the impact you’re having toward your mission?

Second Component: Community Guidelines

I’ve researched hundreds of examples of community guidelines, and I’ve found that most community guidelines (even in communities that people in our industry would consider to be “best-in-class”) are still far from perfect. 

I suggest that, as you write your Guidelines, you think like a real estate agent: Don’t show them the old, broken down closets in the back of the house first (in online speak: don't start with all the "dont's", start with painting a brilliant picture). Don’t yell at people (in online speak: don't use caps lock). Instead, sell them on the dream of what the home could be -- sell them on the vision, mission, and values of your space. Assume your members are motivated by good and not evil intentions.

The three keys to writing Community Guidelines are:

  1. Communicate confidence in your members.
    • Ask: how do your members want to be seen? Now write the guidelines as though you know they are capable of acting this way.
  2. Write guidelines in the affirmative
    • It’s okay to have clear things that are not allowed in your community, but is there a way you can state it positively? (e.g. “We believe in heightened discourse, so we do not allow profanity” rather than “DO NOT use profanity”)
    • Repercussions should go at the very bottom
  3. Use the guidelines actively to reinforce positive behavior, not punish negative behavior.

Here are several resources that may help you as you write your Community Guidelines:

Creating guidelines or re-creating them is a great thing to do in conjunction with feedback from your community. I recommend rolling out any changes to top engaged members first to gather feedback before releasing anything new. This gets people on your side and ensures them that you’re not being dictatorial.

Third Component: Strong Moderators

Many communities have moderators. Now that Facebook Groups has opened up online community moderator functionality, this term has entered Internet vernacular in a way we’ve never seen before. However, most moderators are ignored, on the way to burnout, and have little to no direction or strategy. They’re often the culprits in community blow ups, as we saw on Digg.com and as I heard from countless Facebook Group Admins at the Facebook Communities Summit.

The 3 Golden Rules of Building Up a Strong Moderator Program:

  1. Create a playbook for them guided by the Guiding Principles. Include things like:
    • Remind them of Guiding Principles
    • Voice and Tone (great example of a guide like that here, though a bit too comprehensive to use exactly: http://voiceandtone.com)
    • Templates (not to be copy-pasted, but to be used as examples – thanks Jennifer Patel for the reminder!)
    • Common language and definitions
    • Escalation Strategy for conflicts.
      • Example:
        • First: They get a private warning from a mod. The admin is alerted and a public response is also crafted together. Why does it need to be public? Unless the poster agrees to take the comment down, it will sit there indefinitely and will serve as an example of what you allow in your community.
        • In absence of an admin to help craft the public posting, the mod turns to a senior mod to craft a response.
        • Second: They are privately warned and the comment is immediately removed.
        • Third: They are removed from the community.
  2. Make it difficult to become a moderator or admin: interview them, create an application process, or some other barrier to entry
  3. Thank them profusely: send thank you cards, publicly recognize them, share the gratitude

Need an example to work from? See this example for how Opensource.com runs their moderator program.

Fourth Component: Proactive Feedback

Asking for feedback is one of the most feared but necessary actions an effective community builder can take to prevent conflict. Proactively seeking feedback diffuses problems before they even begin. It creates a container for strong opinions and gives you a way to turn off and on when you take in constructive criticism. If you plan to be building community for the long-haul, this is essential.

The 3 Pieces of a Proactive Community Feedback Plan:

  1. Start regular surveys (quarterly, semi-annually, or annually)
    • Tools:
      • Typeform
      • Google Forms
      • SurveyMonkey
    • Create an always-on anonymous feedback form
      • Make sure to ask: “What is your proposed solution?” in this form (again, thanks to Katie McCauley for the suggestion!)
  2. Before/after you read this feedback, treat yourself.
    1. Take a nap, take a walk, eat your favorite food. This stuff is hard to read and make actionable!
  3. Close the feedback loop: Share what you did to make changes in the community

Fifth Component: Self-Care

The term "self care" is thrown around a lot these days. Self care often gets confused with gluttony or laziness or pedicures and spa days. It is not those things. Now, I am not a mental professional, but I have been through major phases of community burnout and have talked with countless others in this industry, which means I have heard about what they find most effective. Here is what I’ve gathered:

Have a mantra. My personal favorites are:

  1. “This is not mine to take on.”
  2. “I assume this person has good intent, and they don’t realize that they are negatively impacting others.
  3. “I’m doing the best I can with what I have.”

Take a walk at least once during the day between tasks. Do this especially if you’re in the midst of reactively diffusing conflict. It will feel like the craziest thing to do when the conflict feels urgent, but I promise it will clear your head so you can act rationally.

Take deep breaths: focus on the exhale. Here’s an example from a Navy SEAL.

Take breaks.

Don’t be afraid to get the help of professionals! A few people have shared with me they see counselors and therapists. I certainly do. One person has even shared with me that they go to – no joke – “Facebook Therapy”.

Find other community builders who can be your friends and sounding boards.

Here are some other resources for your self care:

Remember that conflict isn’t something to be avoided. We can all grow and learn from acknowledging our own imperfections and allowing others to change us.

This isn’t about creating a “perfect” community where no one ever has conflict. Instead, this is about creating a calm confidence in your community so that members know that when conflict occurs – as it inevitably will – that you can all handle it together in a way that not only keeps the community alive but strengthens it more than ever before.

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