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If a small group of moderators is moderating a large group of experts, it is inevitable that issues occur relating to small areas of expertise which do not fall within those covered by the moderator team.

If users are disagreeing over a matter, and discord is being created as a result, how can a moderator intervene to calm the situation, while avoiding alienating one faction or the other?

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    ...A special sub-case is when one participant tells the other in no uncertain terms that their solution is dangerous and harmful. While the moderator should oppose the form of the message, it might be important for the message to come through, and with force - if it's true.
    – SF.
    Aug 2 '14 at 17:43
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Moderators wear many hats but their main role is to enforce community standards. That's not quite the same role as dispute mediator, because not every dispute between users is going to violate community standards.

In the case that you describe, any intervention by the non-expert moderator should explicitly address the behaviors that violate community standards and explicitly reference those standards. It's unnecessary to single out particular users provided the intervention is visible to all participants in the dispute; the focus should stay on behaviors rather than individuals.

There's no need to be an expert in the topic because whether one side or the other is correct is not relevant in a moderation context. Decorum and scope are relevant, and what the moderator should focus on.

Even if the moderator is in fact an expert in the topic at hand, the act of moderation should be reasonably separable from the communication of an opinion (expert or otherwise) on the disputed topic.

For example...

Here's an intervention that would be less effective:

You're wrong CoolGuy, the mecha-coelacanth presupposes an occipital ridge. Now drop it.

  • CoolGuy might get the message that he's been ejected from the conversation based on the moderator's expert opinion of the topic of discussion, because the intervention doesn't explicitly identify the reason for the warning.
  • This intervention doesn't explicitly identify the community standards that were violated. Even if the moderator is responding directly to CoolGuy's content (as by quoting his words, or comment threading that makes the parent clear) he may not know exactly what he did wrong.
  • This intervention singles CoolGuy out, which could result in other users feeling like they have free license to be hostile to CoolGuy, when what you want is for nobody to be hostile.

If the moderator is intervening because CoolGuy has been antagonistic and insulting toward another user, here's an approach that would be more effective:

The tone of this discussion is getting inappropriate. Please keep in mind that this is a public forum, and the rules of engagement ask that members behave respectfully with each other at all times, even when we disagree. That means no personal attacks and keeping the sarcasm to a minimum.

As far as the ridge is concerned, I'm pretty sure it's always occipital when you're talking about a mecha-coelacanth, and here's why...

  • This approach refers to existing community standards as the basis for moderator intervention. Ideally, the link leads directly to the relevant bit about respectful behavior.
  • This intervention identifies exactly which behavior was inappropriate and suggests ways to behave appropriately.
  • Even if CoolGuy is the only user instigating trouble, this intervention doesn't single him out, because the standards apply to everyone.

In this approach the moderator's official statement is separated from the moderator's personal or expert opinion by a new paragraph and a signal phrase ("As far as the ridge is concerned...") to mark the transition. This is what makes the act of moderation reasonably separable from the communication of the opinion. If the moderator doesn't have any technical expertise, or just doesn't want to participate in the debate, it's perfectly fine not to offer an opinion on the topic at hand.

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In fact, it is recommended that moderators of a community are expert enough to handle any meta issue, according to the following reasons:

  • Although most (depending on community norms) meta issues, like following code of conduct, do not need any expert knowledge to be handled, there may be some ones needing it. For example, suppose that in a mathematician community there occurs a war between two groups of members on whether some post needs more clarity or not; both groups have their own reasons, arguing against each other. So, to settle such a dispute, the community needs a moderator decision. Now, if no community moderators has enough expertise to make a right decision, can one hope that the best moderation happens in such a situation? Furthermore, it is not recommended to bring some expert outside of the community to handle such a situation because moderation issues of a community should be handled by the community members themselves.
  • People with common interests usually understand each other better; they usually have near spirits and attitudes. So, a moderator having the expertise can moderate a community of experts better and resolve probable disputes within the community more successfully.

Answering to the specific concern of the OP, let us suppose that the moderators of a community have no expertise in some community dispute. There are two cases:

  • If the dispute is related to some community norm which does not need any expertise, it is recommended to follow the instruction in this answer and use appropriate moderation skills.
  • If the dispute needs some expertise to be resolved, it is recommended to consult an expert, who preferably has moderation experience, to obtain required information in order to make appropriate moderation decision.

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