Conflict de-escalation in open source

Slides from CMX Global conference on April 28

This is the content for a workshop that I created in September of 2019, based on many of years of leadership in WordPress. The “we” that I use throughout, refers to community leaders, specifically in an open source project.

Why de-escalate?

Open source offers some unusual challenges to conflict resolution and de-escalation. You are required to have complex and sometimes acrimonious conversations in public in a place where those conversations will be immortalized, for as long as the archive lasts.

This long memory of our interactions means that responsible, ethical communication is very important —  you don’t get to just go back and undo something that you wrote in anger, desperation, or anguish. So it is particularly important for leaders in an open source project to respond to conflict wisely.  To do this, you must be aware of how you are reacting to accusation a complaint or a problem, so that you can respond in an intentional and a strategic way.

Do not fall into the bad habit of thinking that conflict is “a bug” in open source software development. Quite the contrary: public disagreement and differences of opinion are major advantages in the work of building software that can power so much of the web. The wider variety of opposing opinions we can collect and review, the more resilient and field-tested our decisions.

The focus of this article is identifying some rubrics and tools that can help you respond more effectively when disagreeing in a highly visible sphere, by de-escalating conflict to a level that does not threaten the contributors’ ability to collaborate.

Anatomy of an argument

What causes conflict? It’s worth reviewing the anatomy of an argument from Dan Dana’s book Managing Differences. Here’s what makes up an argument.

  1. triggering event
  2. perception of threat
  3. defensive anger
  4. acting out
  5. repetition

This happens to you too, when you are engaged in an argument (different from a debate, which lacks of anger). But of course not all arguments or conflicts are created equal; some are more severe. It’s helpful to identify what makes conflicts more or less intense and some of the ways they can rise or fall in intensity.

The intensity of that cycle really depends. It can also be useful to identify a “severity” rubric, to decide how and when it’s necessary or beneficial to engage or respond.

Conflict Severity Levels

Level 1: Differences — two parties disagree but feel no discomfort (your relationship is secure but you like different musicians, sports teams, activities, operating systems)

Level 2: Misunderstanding — What is understood by one party is different from what is understood by another party (miscommunication and/or disappointment on a level that makes you question your assessment of the other person)

Level 3: Disagreement — two parties see something differently, regardless of how well they understand the other’s position, and feel discomfort that the other party disagrees. Can result in a reassessment of the relationship’s future.

Level 4: Discord — conflict that causes difficulties in the relationship of the involved parties, even outside of the original conflict. Relationship is strained, may not recover.

Level 5: Polarization — conflict characterized by severe negative emotions and behavior with little or no hope for/interest in reconciliation. Relationship is actively hostile or estranged. Signs of polarization might include: recruitment/picking sides, refusal to engage in constructive behaviors (ie, perspective taking, creating solutions, reaching out), and a high volume of effort committed to defending a position or making a case.

Escalating and de-escalating elements

Certain elements can push a conflict up or down the scale of intensity.

Escalating elements:

  • making it personal (“you’re the kind of person who,” “designers never understand,” “well if you have low standards then….”)
  • discomfort with the other’s conflicting opinion (especially if the person has more positional authority)
  • level of perceived risk or serious consequences associated with the issue
  • noticing a trend or pattern in the other party’s behavior/opinions
  • quick-paced interaction

De-escalating elements:

  • identification of common ground
  • willingness to embrace differences
  • focus on the issue, not the people
  • focus on interests, not positions
  • efforts to understand all sides
  • slow-paced interaction

In WordPress, we can use de-escalating tactics and proactive relationship-building (online and at events) to help us keep conflict severity to a Level 3 or below.

Communication environments

Communication environments will also affect your ability to de-escalate or resolve a conflict, so let’s make explicit where and in what environment you can more easily de-escalate. These are listed in order of difficulty to de-escalate, with the most difficult at the top:

  • public complaining blog post/“exposé”
  • public complaining on social media/Slack
  • open discussion with the WP public
  • private group discussion (email/DM)
  • private 1:1 discussion (email, DM)
  • anticipated conflict

As you can see, your ability to deescalate depends on the severity of the conflict but also where the conflict is happening. When someone publicly states a position, it is much harder for them to change that position later.

That said, any text-based discussion is not private on the internet. Anything you write to someone in the WordPress community, with very few exceptions, should be something you’re ok with being posted on WP Tavern or any other news site. Get good at complete and contextualized sentences, and use them.

Also, as you can see, the best place to deescalate is before we start talking, or before the conflict goes public. If you know something is going to be controversial or conflict-causing, get in front of it by making a strategy and doing some pre-communicating with known stakeholders.

Are you the host or the guest?

Just a note about open & public discussions. Sometimes these will happen in places you control, and sometimes they happen in places you don’t. As a leader, if you’re communicating on a contributor team blog, or official GitHub repos, Trac, or Slack, you are the host — so approach interaction with the grace of a host. If you are communicating in someone else’s site, blog, or Slack instance, you are a guest; so act with the deference and respect you would display as the guest in someone else’s house.

Steps when responding to conflict:

Compose yourself:

  • What am I feeling (in my body)?
  • What am I thinking? (What’s the perceived threat?)
  • (If not calm) How can I calm down?

Calming Reminders:
(especially for survivors of trauma) You are safe and not in danger.
• Feedback is better than indifference.
• Lack of dissent = monoculture = obsolescence.
• We’re making software, not saving lives.
• You don’t have to win this argument.

Analyze/Empathize:

Why did they take the time to write this? What emotion fueled them? Where are they coming from? What is this person’s goal? What do we have in common? What do I admire about them?

Contextualize:

What people in our program are affected by this conflict and/or agree with this person? How widespread is this opinion or conflict? What is the root cause of this disagreement?

Strategize:

What’s the desired outcome? (what do we want to happen, that isn’t happening right now) Is it necessary to respond at all; will a response make things better? If so, who can respond most effectively, and should you activate a group or a single point of response? What are the risks associated with your response, and how can you mitigate them?

Mobilize:

Recruit your team, if needed. Share the analysis and strategy with them, if you have not already. Draft a response that reflects your strategy. Ask for help in reviewing the draft if it’s not coming easy, or if you’re still having trouble staying calm.

Additional response advice:

  1. Don’t lie or misrepresent the facts; it will damage your credibility and the risks outweigh the rewards.
  2. Do intervene in a discussion when civility, fairness, or safety are threatened, or a relevant fact is mis-stated.
  3. The goal is not to win an argument; the goal is to understand the other person’s perspective.
  4. Zoom out until you find common ground, and then proceed from there. See if you can find one thing in the comment you agree with, and open with that.
  5. Be nice for no reason — it elevates the tone of the discussion. Thank people for the time they’ve spent thinking through a comment or reply.
  6. In text interactions, especially in async conversations, you only really get one or two chances at eliciting more information without also giving information, before your info seeking sounds false or deceptive. Try to express interest in the information without literally asking questions (asking lots of questions can start to present as interrogation rather than interest).
  7. Cut off specious arguments by redirecting attention elsewhere: “That reminds me of…” “This discussion has me wondering about XYZ-tangentially-related-topic”
  8. Try to limit the length of a comment response to (maximum) double the length of the other party’s comment. “Drowning” people in information comes across as condescending or aggressive. If you have to write that much text in an interaction, ask yourself if you’re really trying to gain understanding, or if you’ve accidentally started trying to win the argument.
  9. If you can have a direct conversation with someone, on video or in person, start with active listening.
  10. When you are in a position of low privilege, speak up. When you are in a position of high privilege (which you are, if you are in leadership), listen up.*

Preparing for a meeting*

  1. Origin: What made this meeting necessary? What are the circumstances around it?
  2. Objective: What do you want to happen in this meeting?
  3. Obstacles: What do you think might interfere with this objective? What’s your plan if that comes up?
  4. Outcome: What do you want to walk out of the meeting with? What’s your desired outcome?

*This material or passage was shared or inspired by Josepha Haden. Without her wisdom and support, my work would be much less effective and enjoyable.

Bibliography

Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication by Rory Miller

Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader: How You and Your Organization Can Manage Conflict Effectively by Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan

Everything Is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution by Diane Musho Hamilton

Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution by Dana Caspersen