Addressing unwelcoming behavior

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As you might remember from the meetup orientation (or at least the 5 good faith rules), one responsibility of a community organizer is to address discriminatory or unwelcoming behavior at community events. We absolutely must address behavior that makes an event unwelcoming when it’s identified. We can’t control what people do, but we can control how we respond, and a non-response results in a defacto agreement with that behavior from the group.

Sometimes community members come into conflict, and need help finding resolution. When that happens, here are some tips for handling it.

When responding to unwelcoming comments or behavior, keep in mind that, in open source “Bug-hunting and criticism are always project-labeled, not person-labeled.” The issue is not the person; the issue is their comment or the action.

Don’t assume. Ask lots of open-ended questions and gather as much information as you possible before you start forming an opinion. It is highly rare for the first report to include the whole story, and if you ask questions that are too specific, you might miss some important details. Respond to complaints with sympathy or empathy, but focus on discovering facts.

Encourage communication. Frequently, disagreements between community members come up because they’re not communicating directly with each other. It’s appropriate to talk to two disputing parties separately, but generally the goal is to get everyone in a conversation together to hash things out directly. Important exception to this practice: if a community member has been the victim of harassing behavior, it’s not appropriate to ask him or her to resolve that issue directly with the person who is accused of harassment.

Respond quickly. Ignoring a complaint does not help resolve it, and can make our program less welcoming. If you are having trouble knowing how to respond to a complaint, or you find yourself just dreading even addressing it, ask for help from another deputy or deputies.

Don’t go it alone. Community conflict can be emotionally taxing, and we recommend that everyone work with a buddy when helping community members work out a disagreement. Talking to another deputy about a conflict can help you keep focused and find the best solution possible; it’s also nice to have backup if you get stuck.

One exception to “don’t assume” — do assume good intent. Most people come to our project because they share a goal: connecting WordPress users to help people do more with WordPress. Sometimes we disagree about methods, but usually we agree about the end goal, and reminding people that we’re all trying to get the same place can help diffuse frustration and re-focus the discussion.

A note on communication formats: When possible — keeping in mind the need to respond promptly — it’s great to talk things out over video chat/in person, because facial expressions are an important part of communication. With that said, if there are issues with internet connections or language proficiency — for example if one of the people in the dispute does not speak English very fluently but all the other people do — then a text-based chat (in a Slack DM group for example) can help us communicate clearly, so that all the expectations are well-understood. If you do communicate about sensitive issues on a video or voice call, take notes and send a recap of what you understand from the call to the person you were talking to, so they can review everything that you understood that you all agreed on. Even rich communication like voice or video calls can lead to misunderstandings.

In the following quiz, we’ll look at some examples of some behavior that would make a community event unwelcoming to some members of the community. Describe what you would say and do, as a community organizer, in response to these situations.

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