Responding to problems

Responding to problems

Last updated: 4th October, 2023

Note from Julia: I’m 80% sure this is the right approach, based on the last 2.5 years as the community person at CEA and my previous experience in social work. Some parts of it may work differently in other cultures, so I’d be interested to hear about any areas of this that seem unrealistic or not quite right.

Much of this feels obvious when written down, but I’ve found that people consistently underestimate how tricky the constraints of confidentiality are.

1. Quick guide to parts of a conversation

  • Someone approaches you asking if they can talk about a problem.
  • If you’re up for the conversation, tell them yes, and that you’re happy to keep what they share private.
  • If you’re not up for the conversation (you’re ill, too stressed to handle it well, etc.) try to refer them to someone else in the group who may be able to help them.
  • Listen to what they have to say.
  • Often the subject will be difficult for them. Thank them for this: “I appreciate you being willing to bring this up. I know it’s not easy to talk about.”
  • Ask whether they’d like action from you, making clear that they don’t have to decide right away. “If you want me to talk to Person X, I’m happy to do that. Or if you’d rather I don’t talk to them, that’s fine. You don’t have to decide now, you can think about it and let me know.”
  • At the end of the conversation, check that you’re on the same page about what will happen next and what information, if any, will be shared with other people.

2. Problems that have come up

I think EA groups are generally pretty friendly, but there are occasional glaring exceptions. Some real examples:

  • A man slapped a woman’s butt at an EA meetup.
  • A young EA who had gotten their first job after university, as a charity fundraiser, was criticized for having an “ineffective job” by someone they had just met at an EA conference.
  • A woman gave a talk at an EA group. On a FB post about the event, a man who attended the talk commented about the woman's makeup and body shape and speculated on whether she would become a trophy wife.

3. Order of responsibilities

As an organizer, you have several priorities when you learn about a problem:

  • First priority is not causing any further problems for the person who experienced the problem. This will sometimes mean you can’t take as much action as you would like. If you intervene in a situation, aim to minimize embarrassment and social friction for anyone who’s experienced the problem, rather than maximize your heroism.
  • You want to reduce the chance of the same thing happening again.
  • You want group members to feel this is a good space for them and that reasonable norms are being maintained.

4. More details

If you hear someone has experienced a problem in the group:

  • Keep it as confidential as the person wants. You never want someone to regret telling you something, and you never want to create disincentives for group members to tell you things in the future.
  • Express empathy and indicate that you take this seriously. “I’m really sorry that happened to you. I don’t want people to have that kind of experience in our group. It’s not okay that they did that to you.”
  • Check with the person who experienced the problem about what kind of response they want. They may just want to move on and have as little to do with this situation as possible. If so, respect their decision.
  • Offer follow-up action. Discuss with the person who told you about the problem exactly what you’re going to say. If Jane tells you X, don’t say “Jane told me X” unless you’ve cleared that with Jane. Don’t even say “I heard X” unless you have checked with Jane that she is ok with that level of detail. If the other person can guess that you could only have heard about X from Jane, you have still outed her.
  • Once you’ve cleared it with the person who told you about it, address with the person who caused the problem.
  • The person who brought up the problem may decide they just want to talk it over with a group organizer and don’t want action taken. Even though it can be frustrating to leave a problem unaddressed, privacy comes first. If you break their trust, you will likely not hear about future problems because people will not want to tell you things.

If you witness the problem:

  • If the situation is more or less public knowledge (e.g. something happens at a meetup or on social media) you’re freer to act.
  • If you witness someone behaving badly, take them aside and talk with them privately about it. If other people are around, this helps indicate to everyone that this kind of behavior isn’t okay and that you’re taking some kind of action. But it doesn’t make a scene that may put the person experiencing the problem on the spot.
  • On social media, replying publicly usually makes sense so others can tell the bad behavior isn’t just being tolerated. You might want to still bring it up in private: “I’m surprised to see you say this - this isn’t the kind of discussion we want in this space.”
  • If you’re not sure whether there is actually a problem (is this consensual flirting or an unwanted advance?) check privately with the person you think might be experiencing it as a problem.
  • You still don’t want to further the problem for the person who experienced it.

If someone brings you a concern and you are not sure how accurate it is:

  • Still express empathy for what the person is experiencing - “I can see this has been really upsetting for you.” Assure them that you take this seriously.
  • Ask if it’s ok for you to talk to the other person/people involved.
  • If possible, get the other side’s take on things.
  • Don’t feel that you have to take action on partial information. If the person who reported the problem doesn’t want you talking to the other side, you can explain that you respect this but you won’t be able to take action.
  • Example: a group member tells you someone mistreated them and they want the other person banned from the group, but don’t want you to discuss why with the other person. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can decline to take action.

When you realize a problem has been going on for a long time:

  • It can be especially awkward to address a problem that’s been happening on an ongoing basis. Even if there’s no special reason to address it now, don’t feel you have to let a problem continue because no one has addressed it before.

5. Practice

Think through what steps you would take in these situations.

  • A group member tells you they’re uncomfortable about a racist remark they heard another group member make.
  • You hear a group member ask a new female attender, “How did you hear about EA? Did your boyfriend bring you?”