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Consistency & Translation in Community Management

cuneiformAlicia Staley (@stales) pointed me to the following post on the Wego Health community. While the topic of the post was about communicating as a community manager in a health community, the post was full of some pretty complex topics:

  • Balancing consistency of ‘voice’ with the needs of various groups
  • Facilitating conflict
  • Choosing between different communications channels and tools

I’ve been fascinated over the years by the topic of tolerance, moral absolutes, compromise, and discipline – all of which boil down to maintaining consistency vs. adjusting ‘voice’ for various audiences.  Many people seem to have the impression that you are either tolerant and change or you have beliefs which you proactively promote and don’t compromise on… and that those things are somehow mutually exclusive.  From that perspective, people are either decisive or wish-washy. The problem with that view is that people are really complex and they communicate and understand similar topics in different ways and different contexts. Language is a great example – “Ich bin Americanerin” and “I’m an American” are two statements that are different… yet they mean the exact same thing. So is it fair to say you’ve compromised your position just because you used a different language? That is, of course, ridiculous.  If you are trying to be understood by a German that doesn’t speak English, it’s the only logical way to communicate.

Translation should be used to communicate any topic to two different constituent groups – take the example of upgrading the functionality in your community.  If it’s functionality that will allow your company to better understand the activities in the community but it will change the way some part of the community functions, the way you talk about that change to internal stakeholders will be very different than when you communicate that change to the community.  The fundamentals will not change but the wrapper of why you are doing it and its benefits will. Have you changed your voice or compromised your position?  I would say no. I would say you have correctly translated a reality to best inform two groups with different perspectives.  There is no lack of decisiveness – the change will happen – but you are opening your communication to allow for different perspectives and thereby acknowledging that others may or may not see things the way you do.  That communication practice is core to being a good community manager.

This ability to translate is also core to facilitating unhealthy conflict between members.  Yes, conflict does arise because of different opinions/perspectives but when people respect each other that conflict is good and healthy and should be encouraged since constructive conflict is at the heart of the work of communities.  Community managers need to step in when conflict turns negative, disrespectful, and hurtful.  That is typically due to lack of empathy or understanding.  Helping individuals translate others’ positions into context and language they can understand very often reduces the non-constructive elements of conflict and enables more empathy.  So to does helping guide members to communicate in ways that makes their positions clear while at the same time acknowledging their unique perspective and context which allows room for others to contribute different opinions based on different perspectives/experiences/contexts. This is one of the hardest feats of of communication – very few people do this extremely well.  President Obama’s recent remarks on the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize were a great example for me. He accepted a peace prize by talking about war and security…. without dismissing peace as the ideal and goal. He was decisive about the need for military force and yet acknowledged many differing perspectives on that issue.  Bold and aggressive but in a way that left room for discussion and different perspectives. For this post, it matters less the topic here than the way he was able to address something very controversial in a way which left no doubt on his position yet left room for and even prompted discussion. Perhaps it is his experience as a community activist that gives him that sophisticated communications touch.

Lastly, the question of channels and tools comes up in this post.  There has been an explosion in the number of ways we can communicate and each channel has a slightly different feel. Each tool has different communications characteristics – text, audio, visual, video, synchronous, asynchronous… each element imbuing the context with different depths of meaning.  Layer on to that different purposes for communication – to inform, entertain, educate, schedule, converse, resolve conflict, make decisions – and you’ve got a pretty complex matrix of choices.  The choice you make for how to communicate should be informed by the audience you are trying to reach, the purpose of the communication, the outcome you would like, and the medium best suited to the person communicating.  It’s not always an obvious decision and some types of communication will need to go out over all available channels, some over just one. Being thoughtful, however, and developing some guidelines based on your unique situation and audience is a useful exercise.

I was recently asked for one word that best describes the skills needed by community managers. My answer was ‘translation’ – community managers sit at the nexus between various groups both within and external to the community. Translating – not in the traditional sense of translating different languages – but in the more complex sense of translating the same concept or decision in to the language used by various groups is core to gaining support, resolving conflict, and communicating effectively to groups of people over which the community manager has no direct authority.  But that’s my perspective – what do you think?  Do you have any great examples of this to share?

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