When I applied for the position of community liaison at the Wikimedia Foundation I was given a set of questions to answer. Here’s one that I think was important. The answer I gave is something I try to remember when working with people who have an approach to dialog that is unlike mine.
What might you say to someone whose feedback is unconstructive?
- Listen, ask clarifying questions, encourage action.
Unconstructive feedback usually comes from passion. That’s good! We don’t want apathetic contributors. Sometimes that passion can manifest in misguided ways. Sometimes culture plays a role in interpretation and intent. So first I’d be patient and empathetic. Maybe the editor is having a bad day. Assume good faith and engage positively with the individual. Politely remind them that their behavior reflects on the community as a whole and ask them to remember to remain civil.
If people are sticking around – on talk pages, in conversations, Phab tasks – but frustrated, I’d like to know why. Is there history there? Past experiences? Can we use our own positive behaviors to shift those expectations? For example, if someone says, “Yeah right. You’ll never get back to me. People always promise to and don’t.” I’d be sure to make a note that getting back to people is a perceived negative and use positive behavior (getting back to people when I say I will) to negate that argument.
Another big part of engaging with folks in the wiki way – transparent to a fault – is to make sure that you’re talking to the audience, not just to the person who is being unconstructive. Let others who are reading know that you’re remaining positive and constructive with your actions and don’t let things devolve. I’m a fan/practitioner of the Charles’ Rules of Argument (http://fishbowl.pastiche.org/2004/03/21/charles_rules_of_argument/). No jokes or sarcasm. Keep things simple.
In the end, you can still accomplish a lot with a diverse and productive community.