Compassionate Communication Online

Contributors to the WordPress project are no strangers to communicating online. From weekly contributor team meetings in SlackSlack Slack is a Collaborative Group Chat Platform The WordPress community has its own Slack Channel at to hallway hangouts and MeetupsMeetup Meetup groups are locally-organized groups that get together for face-to-face events on a regular basis (commonly once a month). Learn more about Meetups in our Meetup Organizer Handbook. in Zoom, remote communication has become second nature. So much so that it’s easy to forget that communicating effectively and compassionately online is a skill in and of itself.

The past year has put our online communication skills to the test more than any other. For all it empowers us to do, relying solely on text-based communication – especially without the regular cadence of in-person Meetups or WordCamps – can introduce challenges or gaps in understanding each other. This can be especially true at times when emotions are running high or when communication styles differ deeply.

As community organizers and contributors, it’s important to fill our toolboxes up with trusty, reliable methods to navigate difficult or sensitive conversations, or times when your usual communication style isn’t working. I’ve gathered a few of my tried-and-true methods in this post, and would love to gather more tips and tricks that have worked for you in the comments. 

Try using different methods of communication.

Something that can contribute to frustrations or misunderstanding is using only one form of communication. Slack is home to most of our direct communication, but it also doesn’t provide a lot of context. If I’m having a hard time bridging the gap between myself and someone else, I like to suggest some alternatives.

For example:

  • Writing things down and collaborating in a Google doc (with comments) as a way to process asynchronously.
  • Using Zoom or other voice calls. This allows the other person to process out loud, while I take on the task of sorting through concerns or blockers, and vice versa.
  • Creating a collaborative mind map or another visual tool to list out related issues, priorities, and solutions in a more visual way.

Top ↑

Take notes on the conversation.

When there’s a lot of information being shared, I like to literally take notes – by hand, even! This helps me process what is being shared and reformat it into something that resonates more clearly for me. It also forces me to get out of my head and take stock of what’s actually being communicated instead of the feelings behind the communication. It takes time, but I find it invaluable for creating space and clarity.

Top ↑

Slow down.

When navigating communication challenges, the speed in which you communicate can have a big impact on the tone of the conversation. Rapid-fire communication can come across as urgent and tense, especially if the topic itself is a sensitive one. 

Responding to something non-urgent from an excited or anxious place can make the whole conversation take on a more hectic tone. To counter this, I force myself to pause. After confirming it isn’t actually urgent, I’ll set aside a specific time to come back to the conversation. This gives me more mental space to process and highlight the important parts of what the person shared.

Top ↑

Prioritize what you respond to.

In conversations with a lot of information, I often need to fight against my desire to respond to every single point. This is especially true when I know the person I’m talking with is feeling frustrated, disappointed, or even angry – whether with me, or in general. 

As much as it’s driven by a desire to help, it’s often not realistic nor helpful to address every single point and can sometimes make things worse by getting lost in the details. To help combat this, I like to give each issue a priority – and may sometimes even share that with the other person. When I share my interpretation of the priorities, two things happen:

  • I’m able to make progress on what I think is important and model that for the other person.
  • I learn if our priorities are in alignment and, if not, we can adjust that going forward.

Top ↑

Redirect unrelated conversations to a sustainable location.

It’s not uncommon to deal with more sensitive conversations via direct messages. This can help increase the feeling of safety between the two (or more) folks working on an issue, but DMs frequently grow in scope. To keep these conversations sustainable, it helps to move non-sensitive issues to public forums – like Make team blogs or public Slack channels – whenever possible through gentle reminders. 

It helps break the habit of sharing things in private, but also ensures that folks mediating a sensitive conversation can enforce boundaries around what they are poised to talk about, and what others can help with. The more these boundaries are enforced, the more I find I have time and mental energy to devote to the challenging components of a discussion.

Last updated: