How to DAO 102: Conflict Resolution

Rafael
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Cabin
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Caryn
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oceanova.eth
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April 27th, 2022

Welcome to the ongoing series on how we are building Cabin! In this deep dive, we talk about conflicts and ways to resolve them.

Communities often design their conflict resolution in retrospect of their first blowout. Waiting until conflict takes place puts the community at risk of loosening cohesion and losing valuable members.

With a bit of time investment and intentional design, both can be avoided. After all, conflict is a natural part of human interaction and hence a community. Getting practical about conflict resolution tactics can help your community strengthen cohesion and withstand turbulent times.

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Oops, we did it again!

Alice didn’t really know much about Bob, and now she didn’t want to know ANYTHING about Bob. Last Tuesday (“Why is it always Tuesdays?”) Bob had mocked her work in the #general channel on Discord. It was insufferable!

She tried to defend herself, but Charlie and Dean started supporting Bob. That was the last straw. She offered to leave at that point, what else could she do? Then Eddie, a well-known contributor she looked up to, asked her to leave. It was embarrassing.

Conflict is normal, common, and should be expected in every group. However, our communities often struggle to acknowledge this truth. As a result, we often forget to design proper pathways to resolve conflict.

Designing reactively, after the first big blow-out, is a regular occurrence. Unfortunately, these initial conflicts put the tie of valuable members to the community at risk. At worst, the conflict results in them leaving and at best, it is the beginning to the end of their chapter with this community. Even if it is not obvious at the time, it can lead to valuable members leaving and an odd discomfort across the community.

Constant exile due to conflict results in self-reinforcing echo chambers. These echo chambers are characterized by superficial coherence but underlying fragility. In the long term, echo chambers are not set up for resiliency because they suppress creativity, experimentation, and decision agility.

Echo Chambers become problematic, and even dangerous, when they don’t come along with deep-down self-awareness; when the sacred object is more sacred than the well-being of people; when the tribalism they generate is more like war and less like sports.

Source: Wait but Why

When conflict is not dealt with appropriately, it festers and leads to taboos, self-censorship, and unspoken rules. These, in turn, sacrifice true belonging with performative agreement and omission.

Discussing the tools and vibes to address conflict is equally, if not more important, than choosing your technology stack. Both should be researched and discussed with the same engaging curiosity as deciding the art for your inaugural member NFT and tokenomics.

Designing the "full-stack" for a DAO means on-chain and off-chain interactions
Designing the "full-stack" for a DAO means on-chain and off-chain interactions

Through the initial story, we can see common behaviors that surface when conflict resolution pathways aren’t clear:

  1. 👀 Alice and Bob have an exchange with differing opinions on a public channel.
  2. 🚨 Alice responds: they feel like Bob is being unfair or aggressive.
  3. 🗣 Bob gets defensive and mocks them: "Come on!"
  4. 💬 The general chat is filled with walls of text.
  5. 👯‍♂️ Charlie and Dean, friends of Bob, come to support Bob blindly: "This is just Bob"
  6. 🤬 Alice goes silent, leaves, or is asked to leave by another member.
  7. 🤫 Community members go silent and pretend nothing happened.

This type of conflict feels unbelievably common. Many of us can easily imagine being part of the story.

In this story, as well as many others we remember, a cornerstone (but missing) discussion was how we resolve conflict in our community. A better move would be to make it an explicit and known part of onboarding.

Without intentional design, our human instinct will kick in: Fight (escalate), Flight (Exile), Freeze (Silence), Fawn (Submit). For those in doubt: These are not good resolution tactics.

If the conversation hasn't happened or is outdated, it is the responsibility of each of us to intervene and ask: "Have we discussed conflict resolution in our community?"

This is called ‘the meta-conversation’ and should help the community with the following:

  • Understand the way we are currently resolving conflict
  • Agree on a plan to create and maintain a space for resolution
  • Record exemplary stories of conflict resolution
  • Develop a plan to address significant tensions that are escalating or accumulating
Actual picture of #general chat in Discord
Actual picture of #general chat in Discord

Practical conflict resolution tactics

The bad news is that we can’t avoid conflict. Disagreements are normal and suppressing conflict is about as effective as trying to hold a balloon with needles. It’s “doable”, sure, but do we want to spend that much energy trying to make sure the balloon doesn’t pop?

The good news is that we don’t need to avoid conflict. Instead, we can welcome it and nurture spaces appropriately. Communities can help members have regenerative relationships. In short, we can normalize iterative, intentional, and honest conflict resolution.

Let’s take a look at six recommendations to better navigate conflict:

  1. 📣 Publish the purpose of each space
  2. 🌞 Share memorable stories
  3. 🦋 Celebrate trusted facilitators
  4. 🫂 Support personal agency
  5. 👁 Find and address representation blindspots
  6. 🌱 Nurture a culture of reflection
We are all in this together.
We are all in this together.

📣 Publish the purpose of each space

In many cases, it's not clear where conflict should be discussed. In 100% of cases, the general public chat is not the place to resolve conflict.

If conflict is happening in a public forum, it's usually because there isn't a designated space to have the conversation with intention - and with an explicit mindset of resolution.

Community Tips:

  • Be clear about the function of common spaces. For example, this is a channel about logistics, community announcements, or introductions.
  • If a conflict does escalate in a public space, make sure community members know what to do: Ask members involved in the conflict to create a dedicated space. Note that space includes time, mindset, and place.
  • Designate spaces for conflict resolution. An example can be: “Create a thread and always take a 24 hours break or more if possible”. Encourage 1:1 discussion and be clear about spaces to use for escalation.

🌞 Share memorable stories

Conflict will inevitably happen at some point and that is OK. Community members should acknowledge this publicly and regularly. This helps normalize dialogue around the topic. Having broad consensus across the community about this challenge, reinforcing a willingness to talk things through, and not pretending there's no conflict are important habits.

To do this, stories about the community can be used to communicate frameworks, mediation expertise, and navigation language. These stories should be simple, real, and reflect the memes, lore, and lexicon of the community.

Community Tips:

  • Find examples of conflicts that have been successfully resolved
  • Document what worked well and share those stories broadly (with consent!)
  • Create an accessible guide based on these stories (short, simple, visual)
  • Avoid building a detailed ruleset with set instructions. Instead, provide people stories that can be generalized and adapted based on the specific context (including culture, severity, past trauma, and urgency)

🦋 Celebrate trusted facilitators

As part of defining the conflict resolution model (and intention!), it's underappreciated how much identifying a set of facilitators can help. In some communities, they are called “guardians” because they “guard the space for connection”. Be explicit: "if you're having a conflict and can't / won't / don't feel comfortable handling it 1:1 then talk to Federica or Gary.”

Facilitators often serve the community even without formal roles. Identifying them and formally acknowledging their care work can help the community navigate conflict.

Facilitators should have experience and/or practice in this area and should be known, respected, and recognized as credibly neutral. If this expertise is not present in your DAO then finding and investing in training might be necessary. Non-violent communication, counseling, coaching, and conflict mediation are useful training to reference.

Community Tips:

  • Make a list of trusted contributors who are known for their empathy and neutrality
  • Recruit these contributors to serve as facilitators upon request
  • Publish the list of facilitators to the community members (e.g. roles in Discord)

🫂 Support personal agency

Conflict resolution can include three interdependent activities: personal reflection, 1-1 discussions, and group discussions. Supporting members’ skills to self-organize these activities can unlock personal agency (and success) in conflict resolution.

When members self-organize on the long-tail of smaller conflicts, designated moderators and facilitators can give their attention to complex cases that require experienced intervention.

Community Tips:

  • Provide language to differentiate between various types and levels of conflict. For example, if someone is feeling tension, such as anxiety, it might not be related to an interpersonal conflict with others.
  • Create paths for members to find the right person to connect with. For example, ask members to record the name of a trusted friend during onboarding and share the list of current facilitators.
  • Help new members learn about mediation
  • Share guidance on how to organize and facilitate regular group feedback conversations, such as project premortems, work reviews, and retrospectives.

👁 Find and address representation blindspots

More often than not, conflict escalates after softer signaling has been ignored (unconsciously or otherwise). For example, someone misses the town hall regularly - why? Could it be that they are unreliable? Or maybe behaviors from someone in the meeting creates discomfort?

These signals can be further ignored when the person bringing the conflict to light is underrepresented in the community. In the previous example, maybe the person missing is the only one in a distant time zone. They have mentioned this multiple times but the organizers constantly forget.

One direct path to preventing conflict is by designing more holistically from the start. In this example, it would mean being inclusive of broader time zones. However, it can also mean being inclusive of family responsibilities, disabilities, and other backgrounds. One direct way to ensure this better design is to proactively invest in the diversity of the community. As a result, broader perspectives are included across community decisions (e.g. town-hall times).

Community Tips:

  • Proactively recruit new members from diverse communities
  • Take signals of frustration, fears, and communication of boundaries seriously
  • Take time to understand the context of member requests and communications
  • Understand what are the dominant groups in the community and the status-quo preferences
  • Understand which members are from underrepresented groups (e.g. time-zone differences, genders, socioeconomic status) and how the status-quo preferences may impact them

🌱 Nurture a culture of reflection

Lastly, all else being equal, communities can prevent and address conflict in healthy ways by instilling a culture of reflection instead of ostracization. While leaving a community is the resolution for members who find themselves in a space that is unsafe for them or does not meet their needs, community builders could view that as a reason to double down on conflict resolution design. Leaving should be the last resort if a community has thought deeply about how they ensure safe spaces for members.

A culture of reflection means considering “how to resolve conflict” instead of continuing to debate the disagreement. When we find ourselves or others in a conflict we should ask first about the situation, not about the disagreement.

Community Tips:

  • Encourage members to take on a perspective of curiosity. When conflict emerges, default to questions such as:
    • What would it look like to resolve this conflict?
    • Are we equipped to resolve the conflict? If not, do we need a mediator?
    • Who’s involved in this conflict?
    • Are we in the right space (place and time) to resolve this conflict?
    • Are we all aligned that resolving this conflict is in the interest of our community?
  • Encourage members to ‘pause’ before trying to resolve the conflict. Create spaces to cool down, think, and plan a response.

Of course, there are many other tactics to help with conflict resolution. Please check out the appendix!


In summary:

  • Conflict is normal
  • Some conflicts can be avoided, but many cannot - and that is fine!
  • Community members need to become comfortable with and learn how to resolve conflict
  • Good communication skills and supporting processes will help
  • Community members should invest in processes, tech, and culture that help people resolve conflict

The special sauce of the best communities is not just prevention - it's active, intentional, and ongoing conflict resolution.


Additional resources

  • Book: Non-Violent Communication (Video Link)
  • Book: Crucial Conversations (Video Link)
  • Activity: Write down stories about your conflicts and become aware of your conflict resolution style and preferences.
  • Activity: Identify recent conflicts in your community. Can you identify how the practical tips might have helped? Share what you learn with others.
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