Managing a community is inherently emotional work. A community manager is tasked with engaging and inspiring members to participate, celebrating members’ wins and successes, discussing challenges, listening to frustrations, and are often classified as “people person”. Whatever the type of community – support, enthusiast, or open source – whatever the format – Facebook group, online forum, or support – when people are passionate, it can lead to conflict. Managing conflict within a community can be difficult. Understanding where conflict comes from and how to talk people down is a part of the job all community managers handle differently.
We collected the best tips from six top community professionals in the industry. Adrian Speyer from Vanilla Forums, Rachel Hentsch from the Presencing Institute, and Tim Black from Reddit. David Spinks, Founder of CMX, Serena Snoad, Connect Host London and CM at Alzheimer’s Society UK, and Denise Henkel Connect Host Leipzig, and CM at JOYclub. Here are some of their tips for managing conflict within your community.
“Don’t hide conflict” – Rachel
It’s important that when conflict arises, to ensure it is visible to the community and the moderators. Negative comments, and seeds for conflict that starts beneath the surface can result in bigger and worse confrontations. Rachel says, “the way we communicate is totally open within the community, so any potential conflict that’s brewing will emerge. This avoids the secret building up of issues under the carpet. That way, the visibility and accountability factors just kick in and shape both individual and collective behaviour.”
“Focus on the person not the negativity” – Serena
When conflict arises, focus on the person it’s coming from. Sometimes, the frustration is inspired by the community, but began somewhere else entirely. When managing conflict, try focusing on the member and not the negativity. This gives the community manager an opportunity to connect with that person on a deeper level. Serena says, “instead of jumping straight to the problem, start with the person. How are they feeling? What do they say? What are they going through? We use empathic communication techniques to help with this and to help shape our response. We bear their emotional state in mind when handling the issue, trying as hard as possible to make moderation constructive. There’s a fine balance between encouraging the person to take a step back and look at their own wellbeing and balancing our responsibility toward the rest of the community.”
“Ground rules for moderators” – Tim
Have ground rules in place before conflict arises. Sure, everything in your community is going well right now, but what happens if conflict does arise? Ensure moderators and managers are prepared when something comes up. Then, managing conflict won’t be as daunting, and the team will be prepared. Tim says, “volleying ideas off of [other moderators] to evaluate a set of ground rules on posts is normally the de facto guide for us. We compiled those rules from years of being trolled so we restate them often and that stops most conflicts.”
“Reframe and rephrase” – Adrian
Assuming positive intent is absolutely necessary when managing conflict in a community. Conflict often arises from passionate people misunderstanding one another, and it’s important for a community manager to understand that. Adrian says, “it’s good to try and capture what they mean in rephrasing things so they feel heard, and explaining your point of view. Focusing always on ideas and concepts and not the person. People make a mistake in conflict in not understanding that emotions are very individual. You may not intend to insult me but I could feel insulted. Being aware and empathetic to that, to me, is a good first step in resolving conflict. In the end people just want to be heard and understood.”
“Rules are there for a reason” – David
It’s important as the community manager to remind members of the community rules. Rules are there for a reason, and each member agreed to them – unwritten or officially – when they joined the community. David says, “Most members won’t read the rules and the ones that do will forget. It’s up to you to remind them. Sometimes that means shooting them a kindly worded personal message when they break a rule, reminding them without judging them. Other times that might mean posting to the general community reminding them of rules. I do this whenever I see a rule being broken more often, it’s a good opportunity to remind the whole community of what the rules are and why they exist: to keep your community safe and valuable for every member.”
“Stop conflict before it starts!” – Denise
Wouldn’t it be nice if conflict just didn’t even happen in the first place? One way to avoid managing conflict altogether is to reward good behaviour, and acknowledge when members are having a positive impact in the community. Denise says, “the most important thing has to happen when there is no conflict: reward the behaviour you want to see and strengthen the members who are role models. People learn by copying behaviours so if you make sure the good behaviour is present in your community you can avoid conflict.”
“Make sure people know why they are there” – Rachel
Another way to try avoiding conflict is to ensure members know why they are there. Tim’s Reddit community is a different kind of place than Rachel’s MIT alumni community, and so Rachel sees a lot less conflict. People self identify, know why they want to join this community, and then once they are members, there aren’t very many rules. She says, “this framework has inherently forced us to be very flexible: in order for the community to survive in terms of entry, participation, and engagement, it has to be an open, welcoming space with no strings attached. Also, the rules being quite minimal, this also means that reasons for conflict hardly exist at all, since expectations are almost zero and anything that gets created is a bonus by definition.”
“Locking a thread” – Tim
Sometimes a thread can get away from you. People get passionate about the topic, and the conflict ensues. In the event a thread within the community is not manageable, and the members are not open to having their minds changed or being talked down, locking a thread or the comments is always an option. Tim says, “locking a thread is useful for hot button issues, those issue tend to accrete rage and irregular contributors. There are tools to keep the fires at bay for Reddit (like bans and comment removal, we also have a new user policy that members have to be more reputable) but oftentimes we let the users work it out with each other and try to keep things civil even if people disagree.”
“Bans: last resort, but still an option” – Serena
As a last resort, when conflict arises and becomes unmanageable, or if the same member has been reminded of the rules, and warned of the consequences, but aren’t changing, bans are always an option. It’s important to remember first and foremost, you serve the community, and the safety of a community is incredibly important. Serena says, “bans are a last resort but can happen when the balance of harm shifts too far, and at that point it’s about signposting them into a place where they may get further help.”
What do you think? Do you have any more tips for managing conflict within a community? Let us know in the comments below!
Adrian Speyer is the Head of Community at Vanilla Forums, and has over 10 years of experience building communities. By combining his passion for digital marketing and community, Adrian works to create beautiful and functional online communities to help brands connect with their audiences around the world.
David Spinks is the Founder of CMX. For over 10 years he has worked to help community professionals thrive, advised the world’s largest organizations on community strategy, and developed frameworks that have been used by thousands of community teams.
Denise Henkel has been working in on-Domain Community Management professionally since 2009 and for the past five years her focus was on building and leading the community team for Germany’s biggest adult dating community “JOYclub”. Denise will be speaking about crisis management at CMX Summit 2019 in Redwood City, California.
Rachel Hentsch is the Social Media Manager and Community Liaison for the Presencing Institute. Her community-building work involved founding the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp Alumni Association (MBA2), a community which counts 596 members since April 2018.
Serena Snoad is the Online Community Manager at Alzheimer’s Society, UK, managing Talking Point, an online community where people can talk about the realities of living with dementia. She writes and maintains a blog about community management for nonprofits called the Good Community, and she is one of the CMX Connect Hosts in London UK.
Tim Black is the co-founder of the Subreddit r/Oakland with Debton and fellow mods oaklandisfun and oldgoldmountain, he’s been collaborating with them since 2009, nurturing that subreddit into one of a few civil zones on the site. Tim also wants to note that all mods are volunteers and shares an immense amount of gratitude for all the efforts sitewide. With Reddit and the aligned brilliant mods therein, Tim does what he can to make Oaklands’ corner of the internet a little more sane for the community writ large.