Someone please call 911: Guidelines for succesfully moderating sensitive situations

Last week I already introduced our new Moderator training concept. As we sensed there was a need for more local knowledge about certain approaches, we set up a cooperation with our Global Community Moderator Network to learn more about the do’s and don’ts when conducting research communities in local cultures. A first topic we investigated was ‘Sense & Sensibility’.
The discussed themes were:

  1. A first feel with the culture: what are the main issues when moderating a research community?
  2. Sensitive topics: what are the most sensitive topics in a community and how should we approach them?
  3. Community conflicts: what to do when you have two opposing groups in a community?
  4. The group of wisdom: how can we make sure to engage the entire group and not only the most active ones?
  5. Different personalities: how to approach different personalities?

For each of the above mentioned topics, the moderators had some interesting stories to tell. Let us take a look at some first guidelines:

1. A first feel with culture

Imagine my country as a person: the US might be kind of like that actor Bradley Cooper from ‘Hangover’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ – very vivacious, enthusiastic and confident with a bit of self-doubt mixed in. The US believe on the one hand that it is a country of vast powers and all of its inhabitants can do anything they want to do. The land of opportunity, but with that comes great self-doubt and tremendous self-judgment.” By Pam, the US.

No two cultures are the same. In previous research we already discovered there are 5 important aspects that should be adapted when running a community in a local culture:

  • The reason to participate (or incentivation): how to go about the invitation, reward and motivations
  • Technology: preference for PC, cellphone, tablet etc.
  • Conversation guide: depending on the level of individualism and creativity, different tasks should be developed
  • Role of the moderator: where participants in Brazil expect the moderator to be a social peer, a moderator in China should act more like a professional. The role of the moderators differs from culture to culture
  • Gamification: not all gamification elements work in every country

When asking our moderators what the main difficulties were for them when it comes to cultural differences, they reconfirmed that the main differences are not contained in content, but rather in engagement: how to manage the expectations of the participants, which incentives to use, how to use gamified techniques… The best consultant in this case is actually the moderator: our close cooperation with each other ensures us to grasp these differences better. As there is so much to talk about when it comes to this topic, we decided to focus the next wave of this project on the investigation of these 5 dimensions.

2. Sensitive topics

For me, making sure all respondents feel safe is key. Once this is established, there are very few (or even no?) questions taboo. This feeling of safety is up to us as moderators and it is a BIG help to have a homogeneous group (‘all of us at this table have the same issue with urinary incontinence’).” By Maartje, the Netherlands.
A few topics seem to be sensitive: parenting, health, financial topics and obviously sex are the most difficult themes to discuss. The cure to open up participants? A safe environment. This could include considering a same-sex (or on the contrary: an opposite-sex) moderator or maybe the setting can already be created by focusing first on more ‘practical’ attributes and only then move on to the ‘why’. Depending on the region, some topics will be more open for discussion than others:

  • In Western Europe, people are fairly comfortable discussing taboos, as long as they feel safe.
  • In Northern European countries (e.g. Sweden, Russia), people are a bit more hesitant to share without giving politically correct answers. Parenting for example is one of the major taboos in these countries.
  • In North-America, there are still quite some taboos, the main one being finances. Other major taboos are sex and health.

3. Community conflicts

There are different ways to deal with community conflicts, like the one mentioned in the example about breastfeeding: a ‘content confrontation‘ can actually be used to solve the issue (e.g. by summarizing the different opinions and asking for the common ground or solution in the middle). Also, putting the focus on themselves as a group, a ‘social confrontation‘, could help calming people down: by appealing to the good will of the group and focusing on respect, the discussion can cool down automatically. Other techniques could be personal time-outs or using humor or gamified techniques.

If people have strong different opinions, I usually say that I think it is interesting that things can be regarded so differently. If two people would be ‘fighting’ each other, I also ask the rest of the respondents what their opinions are and if they have any ideas as to why those two people have such different points of view.” By Christina, Russia.

4. The community leaders

It is a good idea to quote the active ones and ask the others for their opinions. I also like the idea of picking up on something different or on something a bit weird, to see if there is something in it. I used to work with a ‘quote of the day’ in a separate widget, where I could highlight the most striking quotes. The beauty of the community and online forum is that the effect of “strong” voices is much less than in a physical setting.” By Petra, Sweden.
In a research community, there different types of participants: those who read carefully and only answer when they have something to say, for example, or those who want to be the first to reply to every single question. In a recent study in collaboration with the University of Maastricht, we discovered that we can group our participants as following: 
Grouped community participants
The most active ones in the research community, the community leaders and the insightful innovators, can certainly add a lot to the discussion: they bring atmosphere, do a first check of the topics and actually challenge the others. On the other hand, their loud voice can also be overwhelming and even overruling. How can one also involve the other groups, like the sparse sporadics and the reflective repeaters? A few tips:

  • The community leaders can also get a special task: by giving them a role of ‘co-moderator’ they are motivated to ask questions to the others. This extra responsibility they take on results in an increase of member satisfaction, 25% more on-topic arguments in discussions and twice as many interactive discussions
  • By using quotes of less active participants and posting them back in the discussion while adding a question, others are encouraged to react as well
    In any case, it is important to identify these different groups in the community and to have an adapted approach in moderation and engagement for each one of them.

5. Personalities

Personalities are the most important differentiating factor between different cultures ànd within each culture. Every human is unique. A difficult personality in research communities is the so-called ‘negative one’: always gives negative feedback, does not give constructive answers and brings a negative vibe to the discussions. The key to success lies in the moderation: challenge this ‘negative one’ to come up with solutions for the things they are negative about or use the ‘perfect world’ principle by turning the negative response into a positive one and asking for their opinion.
A couple of things we might try. The first is to post a comment in the open forum such as: ‘I understand your point. So how would you suggest we solve (whatever the issue was)?’ Challenge them to create solutions with you.” By Steve, Canada.
Interested to join our Global Community Moderator Network? Get in touch for more information.

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