De-escalating conflict in text communication

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most WordPress events are online. Please refer to our online events handbook.

For communities where COVID-19 has been more effectively contained or have easy access to COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing, returning to hosting an in-person meetupMeetup 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. event is possible, with caution, using the resources provided. If you plan to move forward with an in-person meetup, you must use the provided checklist .

Why de-escalate? Why de-escalate?

Open sourceOpen Source Open Source denotes software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. Open Source **must be** delivered via a licensing model, see GPL. 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 interfere with contributors’ ability to collaborate.

Anatomy of an argument 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.

Top ↑

Conflict Severity Levels 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.

Top ↑

Escalating and de-escalating elements Escalating and de-escalating elements

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

Escalating elements: 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

Top ↑

De-escalating elements: 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.

Top ↑

Communication environments 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/SlackSlack Slack is a Collaborative Group Chat Platform https://slack.com/. The WordPress community has its own Slack Channel at https://make.wordpress.org/chat/.
  • open discussion with the WP public
  • private group discussion (email/DM)
  • private 1:1 discussion (email, DM)
  • anticipated conflict

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.

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 a public website. Get good at complete and contextualized sentences, and use them.

Top ↑

Steps when responding to conflict: Steps when responding to conflict:

Top ↑

Compose yourself: 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.

Top ↑

Analyze/Empathize: 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?

Top ↑

Contextualize: 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?

Top ↑

Strategize: 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?

Top ↑

Mobilize: Mobilize:

Recruit your team, if you need one. 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.

Top ↑

Additional response advice: 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. Avoid “you” statements; use “we” — including the other person for rapport-building — “someone” if that rapport-building sounds trite.
  4. The goal is not to win an argument; the goal is to understand the other person’s perspective.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 seem like interrogation rather than interest).
  8. Cut off specious arguments by redirecting attention elsewhere: “That reminds me of…” “This discussion has me wondering about XYZ-tangentially related topic.”
  9. 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.
  10. If you can have a direct conversation with someone, on video or in person, start with active listening.
  11. 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.*

Top ↑

Bibliography Bibliography

Last updated: