When Conflict Resolvers Collide - How Do We Respond?

by Dan Berstein
February 2017 Dan Berstein

 

The NYC-DR Listserv and the 2016 Election

Shortly after the September 11th attacks, Dr. Maria Volpe of John Jay College created a listserv to connect dispute resolution stakeholders in New York City and beyond.  The NYC-DR online community has thousands of members who share information ranging from event announcements to discussions.  The listserv is unmoderated, which means that every subscriber can send emails which will post in real time without any review. In short, dispute resolvers are empowered to connect, share, and grow from one another.  

Occasionally, over the course of the past decade and a half, there have been challenges – personal email accounts get hacked and need to be placed on approval mode, or a debate sparks tension prompting Dr. Volpe to step in to remind everyone that this is a place designed for open dialogue.  Usually these issues get resolved fairly quickly but, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election results, the list was shaken by more controversy than it had ever experienced.  

A number of partisan, activist posts led to intense conflict and debate.  This caused a high volume of messages per day, escalating into increasingly hostile tones and pointed name-calling.  In response to repeated pleas for intervention, both publicly and privately. Dr. Volpe sent her typical message reminding the community that the list is unmoderated, that it serves a purpose of information exchange and discussion related to dispute resolution, and that people have options to receive it in digest mode or to a separate e-mail account to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the messages.  In past years that would have been enough to resolve the listserv tensions, but the context here cut deeper - the emotional reactions to the election were very strong.  

The tumult continued. Dr. Volpe received requests asking her to turn off the list to provide a “time-out,” or to convert it to a moderated list where everyone's postings would need to be approved.  Ultimately, she instituted an interim policy allowing each member to send a single post per day until further notice.  The tensions receded in time for folks to try their best to enjoy their Thanksgiving holiday. 

How This Story Is Instructive Regarding Challenging Behavior

When dispute resolution professionals encounter challenging behaviors during any kind of process - mediation, facilitation, or even an online listserv - they have to decide when and how to intervene, if at all.  We often do this by reminding ourselves of our core values as practitioners, and coming up with a way to handle the situation commensurate with those values.  

The first step is to understand the behavior.  For the listserv conflict, it seemed many on the list viewed certain behaviors as potentially disruptive.  Based on their public and private feedback, some ideas suggested included:

  • the volume (amount) of e-mails
  • the discussion of politics at all
  • the expression of partisan political beliefs and political activism
  • the use of sarcasm
  • the calls for people to leave the list 
  • the act of calling someone names 
  • the act of belittling what someone else said or believes

Having broken down the situation into this list of behaviors, next it is time to determine what action to take.  

Ideas from the NYC-DR Community

I surveyed listserv subscribers asking how they handle these kinds of challenging behaviors on and off the listserv.  Here is a summary of their ideas:

  • See challenging behaviors as a teaching moment to share new techniques.
  • Start a new separate discussion list focused on the topic being discussed.
  • Convene a face to face meeting.
  • Gauge different levels of emotion and recognize that different people have different tolerances, ultimately deferring to the sensitivities of those participating in an individual session. 
  • Remember that sharing a passionate view could be interpreted as being unwilling to meet consensus. 
  • Recognize venting as potentially counter-productive as it alienates the other party and riles the venter.
  • Begin with ground rules and an agreed list of issues; remind participants of ground rules when managing a disruption.
  • Consider a moderator (noting that because there is no moderator, many avoid posting because they are afraid of being personally attacked).
  • Proceed carefully with attempts to reframe the discussion since they could invite redoubled anger or just be fruitless.  
  • Appreciate the context – in this case, the election.
  • Try a moratorium on loaded topics or words.
  • Develop a guideline to refrain from hostile tones, labels, dismissiveness, sarcasm, and mocking.
  • Focus on the future, looking forward instead of emphasizing insults from the past.
  • Try to understand the concerns of people in every position.

The Listserv’s Actual Response

Next I reached out to Dr. Volpe to ask her how she actually decided when to act, and what to do, based on the values underpinning the NYC-DR listserv.  Dr. Volpe conferred with the listserv working group and fielded many private messages with ideas about how to respond to the behaviors on the list. 

Ultimately, she guided the response based on following core listserv values:

  1. The list exists to facilitate discussion and information-sharing related to dispute resolution
  2. The list is unmoderated, empowering everyone to exercise self-control and self-determination as they all share an equal voice

Dr. Volpe identified the challenge: the posts became less and less focused on matters of interest to dispute resolvers and more and more off-topic expressions of political views that included name-calling.    She first sent her typical e-mails reminding people to work together to foster a community of respect, and reiterating options for people to self-manage the volume of e-mails. But the intensity and negativity did not wane.

How to handle this problem? Dr. Volpe implemented a new interim policy that limited the number of emails people could post to a single message per day.  Ironically, the list was actually designed to accommodate high volume interactions - with a high daily limit of posts from any individual user in a day, and a high daily total volume as well.  If people had been having the same volume of discourse about coordinating facilitated dialogue, it would not be considered the problem.

So why limit volume to respond to tangents and name-calling? One reason was practicality.  In this case, the problematic tone was not limited to just a few participants who could have easily been placed on approval mode.  There was a layered, large-scale issue here with lots of off-listserv activities.  For everyone publicly speaking in hostile tones, there were potential choruses of others encouraging them in private.  Something broader had to be done to address this echo chamber.

Dr. Volpe emphasized another reason for the limit as well: the listserv value of being unmoderated and treating everyone’s voice the same.  Any action she took had to be inclusive of all subscribers rather than singling out specific individuals because the latter would compromise the listserv’s purpose.

Ideas for the Future

So far the fix has worked with no complaints expressed publically. So what are some takeaway thoughts looking toward the future?

One is to reflect on the purpose of the NYC-DR list.  Many shared their own definitions of the purpose of the list during the conflict, and often times they did not match.  Some people felt it was a sanctuary being taken away. Others enjoyed the debate because it channeled the emotions of the day, reflecting the concerns facing the country and showing that conflict resolvers were like everyone else.  Without a shared understanding of what information is relevant to dispute resolvers, it can be hard to identify tangents.

Another takeaway is that how we handle challenging behaviors matters.  Dr. Volpe analogized the decision to place limits on postings to the listserv to deciding when to caucus or when to take a break during a session.  In the world of conflict resolution, we have tough choices to make when we intervene and we have to ground those decisions in our values, including impartiality.

One final thought is that it is our responsibility, as participants on the listserv, to create a culture and understanding of the norms.  Dr. Volpe reminded me that there are new subscribers joining all the time – people who may not have experienced previous conflicts on the list, or may not have read the reminder messages about its purpose posted on the bottom banner of each email.  Because the list is unmoderated, it is up to the participants to create the online culture and show newcomers how to participate effectively.  One creative tactic has come from the New York Peace Institute’s Brad Heckman, who often shares his infographic about the life cycle of a listserv conflict during the same moments Dr. Volpe sends her reminder message about it being unmoderated.  Others have suggesting evolving the listserv to also include off-list forums to go into depth on specific issues. Perhaps more conflict resolvers can experiment in advancing the NYC-DR listserv’s culture of responding to challenging behaviors.

 

Biography


Dan Berstein is a mediator and trainer known for his work in mental health, challenging behaviors, and general best practices in conflict resolution.  Through his company, MH Mediate, Dan has trained mediators in a dozen states.  His work with challenging behaviors in alternative dispute resolution has involved surveys, literature reviews, and pilot testing for tools.  Learn more about MH Mediate’s challenging behaviors work at http://www.mhmediate.com/cb/ 

Dan holds a master’s degree in Mental Health and certificate in Health Communication from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health as well as a bachelor’s degree from the Wharton School.  He sat on the Mediator Advisory Board of the New York Peace Institute and is part of the Mediation Committee of the American Bar Association Section on Dispute Resolution, where he is managing a project to share tools for mediators to enhance their practice.  



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