Handling crisis and conflict in online communities is not to be taken lightly. It’s a big, important job. But it is a job we as community builders all must do. That’s because in any community, conflict is inevitable. When we manage it well, it becomes an opportunity. We can actually bring people closer together and build more inclusive spaces as community members realize that they can weather hard times and come out stronger on the other end.
There are two ways we must manage conflict: both reactively after it happens and proactively every single day, to instill a resilient culture in our communities from the inside-out. What we want to do as community builders is create a strong community at the core so that when conflict occurs, it does not destroy what we have worked so hard to build.
Reactive community conflict management is about diffusing tense moments. That’s an important short-term skill to have, but how do we create that long-term core culture that resists conflict?
What Does a Conflict-Resistant Core Culture Look Like?
Creating a conflict-resistant community is about having all the key pieces in place to fight against chaos. Chaos is not a natural outcome of conflict. However, what we see in many online communities from subreddits to Facebook Groups to private forums, is that conflict left unchecked rots the core culture of the community.
In community, culture is always being created whether we are in charge of it or not. To take control, you need five key pieces of a strong core culture. These are:
- Guiding Principles
- Strong Moderators
- Proactive Feedback
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. Let’s go there together today.
First Component: Guiding Principles
Your guiding principles are simply your mission, vision, and values.
Creating a mission statement requires you to answer the question: What are your members gathering together to accomplish?
- 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? (e.g. Have a file where everyone documents their volunteer experiences, and keep a count so you can update people as you get closer to reaching your mission)
The final mission statement needs to fill in the blanks below:
- ”We are going to ______ by _______”
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 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 as so key and they simply ignore activity that undermines these values.
Creating values requires you to answer the question: What values will you operate by in everything you do (e.g. honesty, equality, listening, trusting)?
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 communities (even communities that people in our industry would consider to be “well-run”) are 90% there, and just need a slight push to get them to 100%.
I suggest that as you write your Guidelines, you think like a real estate agent. You don’t yell at people. You don’t show them the old, broken down closets in the back of the house first. Instead, you sell them on the dream of what the home could be.
The three keys are:
- 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.
- Write them 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 to express yourself”)
- Repercussions should go at the very bottom
- Use them to reinforce positive behavior, not punish negative behavior.
Here are several resources that may help you as you write your Community Guidelines:
- A sample community “manifesto” co-created by the Noonday Collection Community (thanks, Katie McCauley!): http://blog.noondaycollection.com/cdn/downloads/manifesto.pdf.
- An open-source Code of Conduct tool, similar to Community Guidelines except Codes of Conduct have a strong emphasis on repercussions at the end and a clear method for delivering feedback and dealing with crisis: http://confcodeofconduct.com/. Codes of Conduct are generally reserved for offline events.
- Best-in-class community guidelines from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/help/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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Make it difficult to become a moderator or admin: interview them, create an application process, or some other barrier to entry
- 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 most necessary things an effective community builder can do. 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 Parts to a Proactive Feedback Plan:
- Start regular surveys (quarterly, semi-annually, or annually)
- Google Forms
- 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!)
- Before/after you read this feedback, treat yourself.
- Take a nap, take a walk, eat your favorite food. This stuff is hard to read and make actionable!
- Close the feedback loop: Share what you did to make changes in the community
Need help writing your feedback surveys? We have a resource for that.
Fifth Component: Self-Care
Self care is thrown around a lot these days. Self care often gets confused with gluttony or laziness. But we all know how hard you work, so stop feeling guilty about responsibly caring for your own needs! I am not a mental professional, but I have spoken a lot about self care myself throughout my career, which means I have heard from countless others about what they find most effective. Here is what I’ve gathered:
Have a mantra. My personal favorites are:
- “This is not mine to take on.”
- “I assume this person has good intent, and they don’t realize that they are negatively impacting others.
- “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.
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. Feel free to comment here if you’d like to connect further!
Here are some other resources for your self-care:
- A checklist for your self-care.
- Statistics on stress and how to find professional help.
- How to find a mental health therapist locally.
Want more? Grab the slides
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. Such a thing does not exist (and if you think it does, it’s probably because micro-aggressions are going unreported). Instead, this is about creating a calm confidence in your community so that members know that when conflict occurs—as it inevitably will—that it will only strengthen the community, not tear it to shreds.