Catalysing and De-escalation

People often use Libera.Chat to get help with something on their computer. Technical support channels are one of the things we’re here for!

If you have ever had a technical problem, you know how overwhelming it can be. Sometimes people seeking help will get very frustrated and might have a temper or be rude. Patient and efficient help can be vital in avoiding conflict in these situations.

This guide will outline some good practices for both operators and helpers for interacting with people. It will also discuss some common situations and ideal ways of responding.

Only be “opped up” when necessary

Most channels have a select few operators who are responsible for managing the culture of the channel. These are the people with the +o flags in ChanServ. Most clients display an @ or another symbol next to their nick. Libera.Chat does not have “halfops” flags like some other networks.

We recommend that operators in channels refrain from being “opped up” unless it is necessary for immediate channel management activities like changing a locked topic or removing a problematic user. We discourage using the +O flag, which automatically “ops up” the flagged user on join. There are other ways for users to find out who runs the channel.

Being opped up (or even voiced +v for manual or +V for automatic) in your channel means you appear above normal users in your channel’s user list, which creates a visible hierarchy. While this might sound desirable, it can interfere with your ability to give support. People will see you as an authority figure and be wary of you. It’s like the difference between having a conversation with a boss or teacher, and having a conversation with a co-worker or a classmate. Users may view your responses as orders, threats, or trick questions when you do not intend them to be.

Channel Ops should avoid demonstrating hierarchy and interact as regular participants in their channels as much as possible. Try not to be someone who only appears when things are heated. Having a rapport with your users will make it easier to de-escalate heated situations, making it easier to avoid having to forcefully remove people from your community.

Why is #libera different?

You may have noticed that the #libera channel doesn’t follow this guideline.

The #libera channel is relatively large and is a focal point for botnets and other nefarious behaviour. It uses channel mode +z when dealing with unwanted messages, which requires staff to be opped, so they don’t miss messages.

Additionally, people often come to #libera to find network staff with network-level permissions. Having staff highlighted in the user list makes it clear who has those permissions. In a “normal” support channel, everyone can provide support, so there is no need to differentiate between ops and users.

De-escalate heated situations

Assume good faith

When you initiate conversations, try to assume that the other person is doing what they’re doing in good faith. People don’t tend to wake up one day and decide to yell obscenities into your IRC channel. They aren’t trying to cause harm.

Avoid public confrontation

Sometimes you can avoid escalating a situation by talking to an angry person in private rather than publicly in a channel, which they could find humiliating. They may still act like you’re intruding into a personal space without their consent. Consider asking to talk to them either in the channel first or, as your first private message:

<You> Hi, can I talk to you about <problem> here in private rather than where others can see?

Note that some support channels discourage private interactions between channel members. Therefore, this technique may be limited to channel ops if that is the case in your community.

Listen and ask questions

Asking someone why they are doing something will encourage them to reflect on their behaviour. Once they are paying attention to their actions, they will often self-moderate. Most people do not want to be viewed as “the bad guy.”

You may disarm their defensiveness by asking for their input instead of immediately admonishing them or levelling accusations. This centers the conversation on them and their thoughts, instead of on yourself.

Try to appear understanding of their concern rather than dismissive, even if you disagree. Your goal is to calm them down, and being oppositional will not achieve this.

When requesting someone change their behaviour, instead of ordering them to do or not do something, you can also ask them if they think they can. They will probably be more receptive and perhaps offer ways you can help them achieve it.

Try to remain calm

People learn by example and often respond in kind. Thus, if you demonstrate calmness when initiating a conversation, the conversation is more likely to proceed that way.

Likewise, being respectful and professional when dealing with an upset person will do a lot of work towards forming a treaty with them.

Compromising, conceding, and resolutions with no winner

Humility is essential when in leadership positions.

Sometimes, you will need to compromise or concede. Digging in when you make a mistake will not improve your community and could lead to distrust.

You can always amend a lenient decision or concession in the future if there is actually a need to do so.

Avoid policing external behaviour

People are often part of multiple communities. They often behave differently in each space, as various communities have their own cultures.

Confronting and punishing someone for behaviour that is happening somewhere else often escalates something small into a bigger issue affecting more people. Pre-emptive banning is rarely a good idea.

It can also make people in your channel feel like they’re being spied on, which makes both your community and other spaces feel less friendly.

Remember to take breaks to avoid burn-out

When previously rewarding tasks, like helping in channels, become tiring and less enjoyable, this is a sign of burn-out.

If you manage a space alone, it is easy to feel obligated to spend all your energy and time keeping the place in order. This can lead to burn-out, which makes it much harder to handle channel conflicts calmly. When that happens, your community members feel like they’re walking on eggshells. It is also easier for bad actors to weaponize you against other community members.

If you are the only channel op, we encourage you to consider giving trusted channel users ops as well. Not only does this provide you with the freedom to do other things without worrying about the channel, but it also gives you another person to talk with about situations that arise.

Find others in your community who are good at talking to people to help you manage things. They don’t need to be the most knowledgeable person in your channel, but they need to be patient, fair, and approachable.

Appeals processes and accountability

Removing people should ideally not be a permanent thing. People make mistakes and have bad days. One mistake or bad day shouldn’t be the end of their participation in your channel.

Also, permanently excluding users from a channel can lead to them seeking a way of evading into the channel, becoming even more problematic.

It’s an excellent idea for your channel to have a way for people to appeal a ban and negotiate being allowed back. Consider having an “ops” channel; most channels use #<channelname>-ops for this. Request that non-ops leave the channel if they do not have an immediate issue, so that people can raise their issues with some privacy. When talking to banned users in an -ops channel, de-escalation tools and building rapport are critically important.

If many channel operators speak to a person at once in an -ops channel, it can seem like “ganging up on” the person. You may want to informally limit how many ops are involved in such discussions at once.

Operator channels also allow people a place to report issues without escalating situations in the channel. It is a good idea to advertise it in the channel’s topic. If people cannot get into your ops channel, they cannot use it, so banning from that should be very rare.

It is also a good idea to ensure that people can use ChanServ to find nicks of channel operators so they can contact them directly. As a result, we suggest avoiding the PRIVATE ChanServ flag and keeping the PUBACL flag unless you have specific reasons to use them.