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As a moderator or community manager, I step in when users are almost gutting each other. They are being rude, flinging insults or passive-aggressive snark at each other. I try to calm them down by pulling them apart and forcing a (temporary) end to the argument.

Instead, they feel provoked by me now as well, read more into a line of mine than I had intended, and are continuing the bickering with even less restraint.

What can I do to de-escalate the situation? Would it be wise to step aside, or would that just give them a different target to vent?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

From what I've seen (primarily on Stack Exchange), there are a few relevant factors:

Velocity

If you've just broken up a rapid-fire back-and-forth, where responses are coming in close to real time, then a forced time-out for a few hours can sometimes calm it down. Freeze comments on the post, disable the chat room where it's happening, or otherwise block them from continuing the fight where it is occurring. They might take it elsewhere, but I've seen freezing a chat room for even 10 minutes stop this sort of thing in its tracks, so it's worth a try.

On the other hand, if this has been going on for days, with the mean time between comments being measured in hours rather than seconds, this won't make a difference.

Acute or chronic?

If two normally-reasonable users are blowing up at each other over one particular issue, you probably want to handle that differently than if two people keep going at each other over and over. Assuming I value both of the users involved, for an acute issue I'll make "less formal" contact -- a private chat, for example -- with each, asking the user to calmly explain to me what the problem is. "Never mind that other guy you're arguing with; he's not part of this conversation. I'm a mod and I'm here to help; talk to me." The goal is two-fold: (1) maybe you'll better understand the issue, but (2) more importantly, each will feel like he's finally being heard by someone who matters. Even if you don't do anything about it, you've given each a sounding board.

For a chronic problem, or if the less-formal approach didn't diffuse an acute problem, it's time to reach for a more-formal warning, something "on the record". With luck you already have terms of service, or a code of conduct, or other rules that cover how users are and are not permitted to behave on the site. With luck, those rules include something along the lines of "be civil; disagreeing is fine but nastiness is not". Quote from (and link to) this in your warnings, say that you value the user's participation (if you do) but this behavior must change, and explain that the next incident will lead to a temporary restriction on posting ability.

But I made it worse!

Yeah, maybe you did, and in your communications with the users involved you can acknowledge that and apologize for it if you feel it appropriate. But that doesn't make their behavior ok, and you may need to say that explicitly. Your duty is to the community first and foremost, and that means shutting down nastiness that makes your community an unpleasant place to be.

Is help available?

If you are not your community's only moderator, and you feel that you've accidentally poured oil on the flames, then getting a different moderator to step in can help. If both of them are mad at you, and you have the option to not be the next person who contacts them about it, having someone else do it may calm things down more quickly.

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The simplest and most effective thing you can do is get someone else to handle it.

Hopefully you have other moderators and/or administrators that you can call on. If so then get them to contact the user(s) involved to placate them and apologise that it got to this. While they might not be able to address the underlying issue, they can provide a fresh perspective or even just a united front that makes it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable.

In 99 out of 100 cases this will be enough to calm things down. You (collectively) have shown that you are listening to people and understand their concerns, but are consistent in your moderation.

If you don't have anyone else then there's not a lot you can do other than temporarily preventing users from continuing the argument by either suspending them or freezing the chat rooms etc.

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This is why it is generally a good idea to handle such issues in private. Often when users are trying to agitate other users, it is for the show. Sometimes it is personal satisfaction, but often they want an audience. If you remove their ability to have an audience and only allow the issue to be discussed in private, you may find them far easier to deal with.

Do your best to stay above the issue and remember that they are going to be upset for being denied their fun and/or revenge. Avoid saying anything that will be perceived as agitating the situation and if if you feel like you are getting too emotionally vested in the issue, bring in someone else who is detached and can help deal with the issue.

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