dejected literary goatOf the long-term, previously stable writing communities in which I’m involved, guess how many have suffered through some sort of meltdown in the past few months. (By “meltdown” I mean disagreements which became personal, broadly eroded trust and collegiality, and judging by early signs, from which some communities might not fully recover.)

If you went with “too many,” you’d be right, though I’m not sure that deserves a cookie so much as a barf bag. While I can navigate it when required, I don’t particularly enjoy conflict.

In such situations, as a former family doc married to an engineer, I’m pretty much doomed to conduct forensic analyses of what went wrong. (Including my own far-from-perfect behavior, because I’d like to do better.)

The good news? I think there are a few, discernible patterns.

The better news? Some relatively simply tools might have made a difference if broadly known and applied.

The best news? These tools are multi-purpose in that they’ll come in handy wherever people disagree, which is to say throughout all of life. Further, in some instances, they can work retroactively to repair damaged relationships. Stick around, and I’ll pass them on in a list of resources, including a list of what NOT to do.

If I had to guess what drove the groups to conflict, here are the culprits:

1. Me. It had to be said. I’m the one commonality to all groups. Since I’m clearly a rabble-rouser, woe unto a community which welcomes me into its bosom, whether of the supported or bra-less variety. (A distinction important to some readers here. *cough Keith cough*)

2. Free-floating anxiety in search of a goat to scape. There are a lot of people on edge right now, a lot of fear to do with the state of the economy, the budget, high-profile sexual assaults, North Korea, the environment, etc. It’s a long list, isn’t it? While we’re bombarded by news stories which emphasize the awfulness, have you noticed how few include resources, or ways you can help?

According to Dr. Srinivasan S. Pillay in his book Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, it takes 10 milliseconds of exposure to a threatening stimulus before our brains go on alert. (The stimulus can be as minor as a photo of someone with widened eyes!) It takes another 20 milliseconds of exposure before our brains consciously register fear. In other words, we can be physiologically aroused, prepared for an assault, yet be unaware that we are feeling afraid or why.

With primed neural circuitry, Pillay says we will regularly perceive threats where none exist or overreact to minor provocation. So if we read a single line of dialogue where a character shouts, “Fire,” we’ll assume the setting is a theater and the consequence a trampling. When relaxed, the same words conjure a Girl Scout jamboree, the scent of roasting marshmallows, the promise of s’mores for dessert.

3. Well-oiled indignation machines.

Once the insult occurs, have you noticed how efficient we’re getting at being annoyed with one another? Back in 2011, Nathan Bransford wrote about virtual witch hunts, calling for restraint and compassion in how we deal with our colleagues. Sadly, if anything, I think we’ve reduced our response times since that post. It’s almost like we’ve worked out the procedure manual.

  • Industry Person A misbehaves or says something controversial.
  • Industry People B through Z use their contact lists to fan out evidence of the “crime.”
  • All gather outside the shed, which I imagine to be organized the way my father keeps his garden tools. (Pegboard walls, labeled slots, outlines done in black marker so that you could never misplace an implement except on purpose.)
  • “Pitchforks on the right. Torches on the left. Don’t forget to turn out the light when you leave.”

Why Moderators and Site Owners Can’t Be the Only Ones Keeping the Peace

Unless you’ve moderated a large group, it’s almost impossible to understand the challenges which come with the job. To get a sense, can you tolerate a metaphor? Consider a North American family in the grip of some sort of long-term, wearying relationship dysfunction. Then something triggers a crisis—perhaps Little Johnny or Janey acts out a school. The family seeks help.

Even with skilled counselors and privacy, so that people can become their vulnerable and ragged selves without fear of public shaming, committed partnerships struggle to survive. Imagine if we changed the therapy sessions thusly:

  • Replace Johnny and Janey with a family of 20-200 children.
  • In some cases, we’d throw the doors open and let all interested parties participate, whether they’ve engaged with the family beforehand or not, whether they’ll stick around afterward to pick up the bill or pieces of furniture, or whether their career interests mean they’ll benefit by stirring the pot.
  • Let’s let people trickle in or slip out according to their schedule. The majority of the family might have moved on, prepared for peace and reconciliation, but to the newcomers’ eyes, the drama is fresh.
  • Let’s maintain a visual record of every insult or mistake made and rehash it at will, both within the group and in public.
  • Oh, and that therapist? They’re probably unpaid, have no professional training, and no professional body to back them in the event of serious disputes. Further, they are expected to demonstrate excellence in mediation 24/7. For days.

I’m being melodramatic, sure, but honestly, given the challenges, it’s marvelous how often groups function, even excel in their generosity.

In fact, I’d like to pause to give momentary thanks to the people who do this work tirelessly on behalf of WU. (Blog Mamas Therese and Kathleen; Facebook Page Mod Squad leader Vaughn and his Texas Trio of Kim, Valerie, and Heather, all listed in the right sidebar.) It’s a tribute to their skill and behind-the-scenes efforts that you do not know how often they save us from ourselves. ;-)

When moderators get overwhelmed by a conflict—and boy, can disputes go from hot to boiling-over in no time flat—there are three possible outcomes:

1. Community erosion to the point of interactions being officially or unofficially impaired.

What this looks like: People stay away or engage at a superficial level. Posts or records have to be erased, comments shut down on a temporary or permanent basis. If it gets bad enough, I’ve seen once-thriving message boards frozen altogether.

2. Communities become irrelevant to all but the squabblers. (You’ll see this in the comment threads of most large news outlets.)

In either case, if they aren’t careful and self-aware, people leave feeling more fearful. They take that sense of lessened safety into other writing communities, potentially creating a domino effect.

3. The best-case scenario. The kind all pointy-headed dreamers like myself want to see: We understand what’s at risk and work to become self-aware and self-correcting, so that the norm becomes thoughtful disagreement rather than outright combat. We learn to be gentler with one another. We take responsibility for our part of the interaction, no matter the provocation. We learn forgiveness and to let things go, not because we don’t notice or care, but because it’s kind.

And we understand we all have the capacity for boneheaded moves. On the day we finally make ours, we’d like to be greeted with a culture of compassion.

Assuming that you’re interested, here are some resources I find helpful and intriguing:

 1. The Four Horseman of the Relationship Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, Stonewalling

This is the work of Dr. John Gottman, who can observe a couple’s communication and predict within 3 minutes with greater than 90% accuracy whether they will remain together and be happy, assuming they don’t change the pattern of interaction. (I recognize his research wasn’t on writing communities, but I think you’ll see its relevance.)

Here’s a video which explains the 4 Horseman and the differences between the couples Gottman calls the Masters versus the Disasters. (Hint: They don’t begin by forwarding this post to their partner with the subject line “I suspected you had issues.”)

2. For rules on fair fighting, because disagreements are inevitable but destruction is not:

3. For self-soothing and insight, so that you can reduce your reactivity to insults, pick your battles, then employ effective tools which don’t undermine your own position:

Now, peeps, I’d love to hear about other resources you can recommend. (I’d be particularly interested if you have research and references which address online conflict.) Talk to me of exemplary and generous writing communities and cultures. To what do you attribute their success? 

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.