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I have a user who complained about my moderation in broad terms, saying that "moderation on the site is heavy-handed" and "poison".

They provided one specific instance as an example..

Other members of the community seem supportive of my actions in that one example. The question was receiving downvotes before I intervened, and has received upvotes after my actions. Additionally, users comments on the question, and in response to the complaints, both seem seem to disagree with the complaints for this specific example.

I responded, explaining my reasoning for the example provided, and I believe I've covered the situation adequately and appropriately. However, the user made general complaints about site moderation, even though they only provided one example.

Should I ask them if there are other issues with moderation that concern them? Would asking for additional examples be likely to be productive, or would it come across negatively?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of inviting more dialog from this user, as opposed to just letting the issue drop?

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6 Answers 6

I've been in this situation and also seen it arise on sites where I'm a user. In my (anecdotal) experience, if there is a single example all you can do is to address the specific case and say something like this:

I'm going to address the specific case you brought. It's hard for me to generalize from that about what you mean by "heavy-handed", so please feel free to expand on your concern or raise other examples. If there's an underlying issue I'd like to address it, but I don't know what it is so I can't.

I've found that a single, general invitation like this works best; if there are other issues and the person wants to raise them he can (we've invited it), but if he's just blowing smoke over a single incident, he can decline to respond and he still got his answer about that issue. If the user is at all valuable and might be over-reacting to one situation, you want to enable him to back away while saving face. So if he doesn't say anything more, you shouldn't either -- it's done.

If he does bring more examples, or phrases his complaint in a way that's easier to understand, then of course you should follow up.

Sometimes the user says enough for you to understand the nature of his complaint even though he doesn't bring examples. If he says that mods are heavy-handed because they close questions too quickly, then while asking for more examples you can also respond to the general issue, ideally with data:

Here are all the questions closed by mods within the last 30 days. X of them were edited, reopened, and answered, while Y of them remained closed. Are there particular cases where you think we messed up? What would you have preferred we do differently? Please help us to better understand your perspective.

This has a couple important effects:

  • It meets him half-way; as he gets more specific you can as well.
  • It offers him data to work with: make it easier for him to provide further examples. Maybe he doesn't know how to search for mod-closed questions but he knows he's seen some he disagreed with.
  • It places the ball back in his court; it's up to him to cite examples or elaborate further.

Also:

If the complaint was raised in the appropriate venue (wherever that is on your platform), then it's good to acknowledge that before you dive into an answer. Using Stack Exchange as an example:

Thank you for bringing your concern to meta. This is the best place to raise concerns before the community.

If the complaint was raised in an inappropriate venue, don't continue the conversation there but redirect it:

Comments on this post aren't the right place to raise concerns about (unrelated thing). Please bring your concern up on our meta site (link) so that we can address it. If you have a concern then we want to hear it, but not here. Thanks.

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1  
+1 particularly for praising the user for raising the issue in the correct way. I've had situations escalate in comments before when the user just didn't seem to understand that we wanted to hear it, just not there. –  KitFox Sep 1 at 14:20

Yes, it is productive to ask for more examples. You are biased in your moderation duties. This is not a criticism, it is just how people work. You see what you've done as having "covered the situation adequately and appropriately". Your user sees the opposite. Thus, one of you should be trying to convince the other of their point of view.

As a moderator, I've often taken the approach of asking for a few recent examples that reflect their point of view. I've always stressed "recent", as users can dig into the old topics and discussions and find just about anything in older communities. By restricting them to recent events, you can have a conversation about the issue at hand instead of rehashing old arguments.

Another thing to be aware of when asking is how you are asking.

Give me examples of "heavy handed" moderation

This comes off has somewhat dismissive. It also doesn't explain why you want these examples. If your user is being reasonable and trying to show you something that you aren't recognizing, this can be a turn off.

I am not seeing the "heavy handed" moderation you describe. In your one example, I responded because . I don't see this as heavy handed. In fact, since my intervention the voting patterns have reversed. Could you provide a few examples of where you see this 'heavy handed' moderation? Help me to see things from your perspective.

This is longer, but it also makes clear what you are seeing (or not seeing). It helps to give your perspective on the topic and prompts the user to think about the results of the moderation.

Note that I did not mention anything about what other people thought of your moderation actions. Regardless of who these people were and their standing in the community, by keeping the conversation focused on your actions and the results, you are keeping the appearance of "I have back up...where is yours?" out of the discussion.


If this user is known for general complaints without providing more details, it is still important to be aware of the concerns. Their complaints may have some validity, but they may be unable to articulate any better. By engaging them in conversation you might be able to draw out their concerns. If the discussion stays vague or becomes circular, though, it is time to drop it. As much as you may want all of your users to be happy, it is important to remember that you can't please everyone all the time. When it reaches the point of dropping the conversation, end it with a very simple

I believe your example of "heavy handed" moderation does not convey the point you are trying to make. I (and the team) will be open to more discussion if you can provide further examples that show your point of view. We appreciate your willingness to hold us accountable though.

There is value in ending the conversation in such a way. It clearly indicates that you are done discussing this specific instance because the user is unwilling to provide more input. It also shows that you are willing to continue the conversation in the future, if such input can be provided.

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Good answer, especially about when it's time to disengage. (Man, we were both writing at the same time, it looks like -- I didn't see yours until after I'd posted mine.) –  Monica Cellio Aug 19 at 14:46

Let's start by making the base assumption that the person you're talking to actually wants a discussion and that they're reasonable and aren't just trying to ruin your day. This is a risky assumption because it's not always the case.

If a reasonable person says something's wrong, it is natural (and correct) to ask what that is. Of course if the problem is you (or could be), how you dress that follow-up is hugely important. Closing their question with a "Cite your issues" comment isn't going to ingratiate with its OP.

Treat the whole process like basic customer service:

  • Go into the discussion being sympathetic and apologetic. Generally throwaway phrases like "I'm sorry you're having problems", "I understand your frustration", etc go a long way to calm an angry user. If you honestly treat this as an opportunity to improve yourself, a user can respect that.

  • Ask for instances but also ask what they would have done in your situation. A bit of role play gives you another point of view, but also a counter-point if they're oblivious to what's actually going on.

  • And afterwards be clear what it is you are going to do to fix the issue, or why you're doing nothing. Few things worse than other community members coming up with similar complaints citing old ones that were never finalised.

In terms of actually dealing with a potential problem, it really helps to have a second pair of eyes. I realise not every moderator out there has a team of other moderators around them like on SE, but we have a great opportunity to ask them for their opinion before going back to the complaint.

And if things do flare up, and you can't see a resolution, step back and ask somebody else to deal with it. There's nothing like a blanket of moderators to show a user what site policy is.

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Asking for more examples is not counter productive per se. However, you do need to be sensitive about how you ask.

Fundamentally you want the user to "put up or shut up" - but can't say so in so many words. Therefore you have to couch your request in more general terms:

  • All posts flagged for moderator attention are carefully reviewed.
  • If you disagree with an action you can always reflag the post so one of the other moderators can review my actions.
  • If there are any other posts that you have concerns about please flag them - if you haven't already done so.

I'm sure other's will come up with better worded examples.

This should let the user know that their concerns are being dealt with and that the other moderators are there to verify your actions. This also puts the ball firmly back in their court to use the moderation tools they have available to raise concerns and effectively ends the discussion.

By ending the discussion you are also (hopefully) preventing other users from joining on one side or the other and making things worse.

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Don't ask questions you don't want answered.

Ask that, if:

  1. You can do something about it if the user is (even partially) right
  2. You honestly believe the user may have a case (say, the provided example shows at least arguable action on the moderation side).

Asking for more examples if you merely want to try to prove the user wrong may explode in your face. You are biased in your view and the user may deliver on your request, showing you other actions you believed right in an entirely different light. You were proven wrong - and now what? Oppose the site owner? Start a moderator war? Try to do damage control? Nope, if you can't do good on their accusations, don't try to stir it up. If the user was right about that one case, apologize for the situation and promise to try to avoid it again.

Then there's the chance the user just tries to stir it up. Defuse that singular situation, not acknowledging any pattern unless the user provides more on their own, not incited to do so in any way. If you ask, they will feel compelled to provide, even if just producing a bunch of more bogus cases you'd need to defuse individually. You'd be only encouraging a counter-productive argument.

Still, if you can influence the site policy, if you can affect other moderators and suspect the user might have a case, do ask, in all honesty, not as a challenge but as aid to identify a disturbing trend you - as a moderator, with moderator bias - have a problem noticing.

In other words: ask that only as request for aid in resolving a broad problem, not as a challenge to disprove the user's point; that's just asking for trouble.

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I think that this is a tricky situation. If you have made a decision and given guidance to the community that this user doesn't agree with, the user may just be upset and speaking from anger. This is not a good place to start a conversation from, especially when moderating a community or any group of people.

Possible (good/bad) outcomes of asking for more instance that you may not necessarily be aware of:

  • show the community a pattern of Moderation
  • show the community that you are willing to be swayed in your decisions
    • depending on the type of community this could be good or bad
  • show indecisiveness in your Moderation

I still wouldn't let the issue drop though either. I think that a cool down period may be necessary for the user before you try what the other answers have offered.

speak to them in private chat (perhaps with another moderator if possible) when you invite more instances, or ask the user publicly to write you a private e-mail giving the other issues they see so that you can self-evaluate your moderation (if necessary)

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