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messy There is an adage in the wide world that goes something like this: "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans."

A less faith-oriented version of that line of thought breaks down to "Life Happens." Which all means that no matter how well we prepare the structure and flow of our daily lives, chaos and random chance can always cast such plans aside and potentially damage all we have built, sometimes irreparably.

Communities are no less immune to this kind of ill fortune than any one person. Even with the best intentions, communities can become embroiled in conflict and strife that can burn like a brush fire through all of the great things you've accomplished.

Be Prepared

The Scouts, both Boy and Girl, have the right idea: crazy things are going to happen, and you need to be ready for them.

Most of us do a lot this kind of preparation already. Knowing that we live in flammable homes, we buy smoke detectors to warn us of toxic fumes, we get insurance to prepare for disaster, and we hide the matches from young children. On a community level, we ensure fire departments are organized, and we pay taxes to make sure they operate. While there are some in any community who are reckless and ignore such preparations, as a whole we try to do everything we can to avoid losing our homes and lives to fire.

This does not mean that fires will stop happening. But less lives are lost when people understand what they need to do when disaster strikes.

Such preparation also falls upon community members and organizers to avoid potential disasters. If you are lucky, conflict can be avoided, and that's great. But if conflict does happen, knowing how to respond to it can help mitigate the damage.

Community Kung-Fu

When learning martial arts, many disciplines include training on how to fall. That's usually because somewhere along the line in training (like day one), you're going to get knocked on your butt and humans + gravity + planet is a good formula for injury. One method of falling correctly is to spread your arms out and slap the ground just before the rest of you hits. The idea is to transfer some of the kinetic energy and momentum of your entire body into a more distributed area.

If done correctly, such techniques can mitigate or avoid injury altogether.

Communities can flip this concept around. Distributed impact injures less than focused impact, so if community conflict occurs, having established preparations can act like a distributed web that absorbs the impact across many in the community, instead of corrosively hurting just a few.

There are three things that can best serve to absorb and minimize the impact of conflict.

  • Codes of Conduct
  • Transparency
  • Diversity of Thought

Codes of conflict are certainly not a new concept, but they bear mentioning again because a lot of communities assume that such things are superfluous. After all, they might argue, my community adheres to common sense rules along the lines of "Be excellent to each other," so why should I muddy that up with rules and regulations?

While I would be last person to criticize such a policy, not having a formal Code of Conduct deprives communities of a vital thing: what do you do when someone is not excellent? How are they treated? How is the person on the other end of the poor behavior treated? And—here's where it gets tricky—who decides what's excellent? Not having formal rules of the road may seem all well and good when traffic is good and you're not crashing into anything. But when the first fender-bender happens, how is the situation resolved? What recourse do all the parties have?

This is where transparency comes in. Everyone needs to know where the Code of Conduct is, how it was decided upon, and what (if any) exceptions should be made. As much as possible, conflicts should be handled out in the open, and if they can't, it should be stated clearly why. Issues of privacy are important, but this must be balanced against the need for the entire community understanding the resolution of a conflict. Build that into the Code of Conduct too.

The Tribal Illusion

Perhaps the hardest thing of all is understanding that the people in your community aren't you. This may be obvious if you are fortunate enough to be in a multi-gender, -racial, -cultural community, but even then it is very easy to fall into the mental trap of tribalism. Everyone in our community loves building our project, you might assume, so therefore we feel the same way about lots of things.

I can assure you this is not the case. My teammates at Red Hat are all very good at what they do in communities but I can assure you they are very different people. We approach problems from completely different angles and work in a variety of ways to approach whatever solution they have come up with. Our personal hobbies and interests are as diverse as our languages and our geographic locations.

When I hear someone's words, I will automatically judge those words through the lens of my experience not theirs. What is very, very hard to do is judging whether those words are merely outside my comfort zone or truly offensive. This is not an argument for moral relativism: if someone is being denigrated or belittled, it's offensive. Period. But, as we all know, there are a thousand million situations that aren't immediately as clear cut. One person's normal may not be yours, and you have to take that in account as much as you can.

Communities are never going to be perfect. Anyone who says differently is kidding themselves and others. Communities have people in them, so by default they will be imperfect and messy. But if the rules are in play and enforced consistently, they can be a net to catch a community when it falls.

Image courtesy of MaxPixel under CC0 1.0 license.

About the author

Brian Proffitt is a Manager within Red Hat's Open Source Program Office, focusing on content generation, community metrics, and special projects. Brian's experience with community management includes knowledge of community onboarding, community health, and business alignment. Prior to joining Red Hat in 2014, he was a technology journalist with a focus on Linux and open source, and the author of 22 consumer technology books. 

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