Avoiding personal conflict on mailing lists

I subscribe to email discussion lists on various topics like web development, information architecture, experience design, online writing, etc. I have often seen vicious arguments break out on some of them. Somebody posts something, then someone else not only refutes that but also calls the original poster a moron for not knowing better. Pretty soon, many flames are exchanged, and the rest of the list subscribers are silent witnesses to a bloody mess. Nobody likes that.

From observing these battles, I’ve found some common behavioural  patterns in all such incidents. The following is my list of suggestions for avoiding flames and managing conflict on mailing lists: 

1. Attack an opinion, not the person. This is my golden rule for resolving conflicts. If, for example, you want to point out that the design of a person’s site sucks, don’t also add that you think the person is a clueless designer. Nobody likes to be called incompetent.


  • You’re an ass for suggesting that we use ASP on our site 
  • Clearly you haven’t read the documentation properly, or you wouldn’t be suggesting this 
  • If another person tells me that Windows is better than Linux, I’ll spank him 
  • You are SO wrong!!!


  • ASP running using HalcyonASP lacks some key features that we need on our site
  • In the documentation at http://www.example.com/docs/installation.htm, this issue has been explained
  • (just don’t start a platform flame war 🙂 
  • I disagree with you.
2. Avoid sarcasm. Cultural and individual sensitivity to sarcasm varies from person to person. Forget that silly quote about sarcasm being the highest form of wit. Remember that mailing lists can have people from all over the world. Respect their culture too.

3. When you disagree with someone, say just that. “I disagree” is not the same as “You’re wrong”. The former is a difference of opinion; the latter can be construed as a personal attack, even when it’s not. When possible, avoid any “you” statement. Make it an “I” statement instead. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) effect of having “you” in a sentence is that it puts the spotlight on the person receiving the message. A natural defensive barrier goes up.

4. When possible, show empathy for the receiver.

Bad: “Why can’t you see that this db schema won’t scale to support transactions with thousands of users? I’ve already told you two times that it won’t work because [reasons]”

Good: “I realise you’ve thought through this, but I’m not sure this db schema is scalable for the features we’re planning. Here’s why: [reasons]”

Believe me, you can never win an argument by starting a letter or email with a negative stance, even when you’re 100% right. The other person’s pride will be hurt, and such a person will fight it out to the death 🙂

5. Don’t be cryptic. Say what you mean, in as simple and straight a way as possible. Avoid innuendo, implied statements, and stuff like “wtf?”, “*shrug*”, etc.

6. When in doubt over what the other person meant, ask him or her. Don’t assume anything. Wars have been fought over assumptions.

7. Humour is always good to diffuse a tense situation. When you suspect that the other person may misinterpret you, use emoticons.

2 thoughts to “Avoiding personal conflict on mailing lists”

Comments are closed.