From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
Conflict is part and parcel of life. We see it every day on television; hear it every day on the radio; and read about it every day in our email, social networking websites, newspapers, magazines, and books. Most of the time, Louis Armstrong provides the soundtrack to our wonderful world, but every so often life gets a little edgy and our soundtrack is replaced with Slayer.
You should absolutely expect conflict in your community. There is not a community yet that has gone unblemished by conflict, and its presence is no reflection on your community, its members, or its leaders. You could tirelessly spend each and every day making the tiniest of considerations and changes, refining your processes and governance to the nth degree, and ensuring you are regularly checking in on the happiness of your members, and you will still find conflict lurking somewhere.
The reason is simple: people are people, and sometimes people just don’t get on. You may have two people who have similar interests, similar backgrounds, and similar perspectives but just rub each other the wrong way. People are big bags of variables: different cultures, opinions, approaches, ideas, values, and more. When one big bag of variables doesn’t match another equally big bag of variables, spats, arguments, and fuss ensue.
There is a science out there that explains how conflict occurs, but it is grounded in this plethora of variables, stimuli, nature-versus-nurture debates, and other elements. It is possible to devote your life to the topic: there is a sea of content about the psychology of conflict, anger management, cultural impact, expectations, and negotiation skills. Although you are welcome to submerge yourself in this academia, much of it will not be particularly useful when trying to figure out how to untwist the knickers of two people caught up in a fracas.
As a general rule, conflict is rare, and it doesn’t need a lifetime devotion to the library of academia. What it needs are straight, practical, hands-on approaches to dealing with common situations. With this in mind I wanted to include this chapter as a summary of the most important things to know when dealing with your community’s conflict. It will give you the tools for handling the level of conflict you are likely to deal with.
The Structure of Strife
Let’s kick off the chapter by exploring some of the high-level elements involved in conflict. The following are three fundamental ingredients that are often present in a conflict:
Typically the participants in the conflict are not exactly wallflowers. They are often strong personalities who are not afraid to speak up when they are unhappy.
There are invariably one or more goals or values that the participants disagree on. Importantly, these are typically perceived goals and values. The reality is often very different, as we will explore later in this chapter.
The fact that two strong personalities disagree on goals or values does not in itself cause conflict; it is the manner in which these personalities interact that causes the sparks to fly. The source and nature of the interaction is often a key component in the conflict.
Conflict is a little like really bad food. There are many strong flavors out there (these are our personalities), and many of them have distinctive purposes (these are our goals/values). When the ingredients are in their boxes and bottles in your kitchen cupboard, they are innocent and innocuous. However, putting them together in the same dish can potentially create something that leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth for a long time. On the other hand, strong flavors put together in the right way can complement each other and produce stunning outcomes and tastes that become memorable, long-lasting, and incredibly enjoyable.
Rather unsurprisingly, conflict does not make for healthy community. Conflict is the acid that slowly erodes away community: it causes uncertainty that thrives in an uncomfortable and unpleasant environment. With a community generally populated with volunteers, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how unappealing this kind of environment can be.
Although an irksome aspect of human behavior, conflict does offer us valuable insight. It helps us to identify the personalities in a community, it demonstrates a sense of passion in your members, and it shows very clearly that your community is alive and thriving as opposed to a lifeless husk. Conflict is always going to be present in a thriving community, and strangely it is one metric of success.
This reminds me of an incident a few years back when I wrote a blog entry on http://www.jonobacon.org/ and received an awfully mean-spirited and nasty comment: personal, full of vitriol, and entirely unnecessary. As soon as I read it I became very self-reflective and worried that the statement may have represented the views of more than that individual. In doing so, I entirely failed to balance the picture and consider the countless pleasant comments and wonderful email that I received. My mind zoned in on the negative.
In the midst of all of this, I logged on to discover a message from my friend Christian Schaller:
Hey Jono. I saw that comment on your blog, you must be delighted!
When I asked in what possible dimension that comment would make me happy, Christian responded with:
For someone to write that it means that they care what you think, so much so they felt the need to write it on your website. Congratulations!
In a strange and twisted way, Christian was right. When people care about something, it will often inspire them to take great lengths to protect against something they disagree with. When this happens, conflict brews. As a community leader, your community will look to you for guidance and advice when conflict rears its ugly head. You need to be prepared to step in and provide security and confidence. You need the skills to handle conflict in a way that is professional and reasoned, and subscribes to the underlying values of your community.
Conflict resolution in a volunteer community is very different from conflict resolution in a formal organization such as a company or a government agency. Community conflict often requires more sensitivity and restraint. The risk associated with putting a foot in the wrong place with community conflict resolution is that any party who is unhappy with your solution may well leave. If you have to deal with conflicts too often, you may end up losing many great members in your community. In more formal settings, the likelihood of employees leaving after conflict is much reduced, as they have to earn a living and put food on the table for their family.