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How to Deal with the Difficult Forum User

It has happened to us all at one time or another.  We are trying to help someone on an online forum and they won't cooperate when asked for more details regarding the problem they are experiencing.  You may have written some code and they come back and say it doesn't work, but they won't tell you what was wrong.  The may question your advice regarding an approach to solve a problem.  What do you do?

Well, you could throw in the towel and walk away.  If this is a user that you have had frequent issues with over several problems or questions, you may even add them to your personal black list, those forum posters that you will simple ignore in the future.  You may even let your frustration get the better of you and say things in the heat of the moment that you may regret later.

Before you do any of those things, let's stop and think a minute.  I'd like to thank RBarryYoung on sqlservercentral.com for articulating two of the principles that can make dealing with difficult individuals easier.

The first is to treat the individual with respect.  Do this even if they are not showing you that same respect in return.  It isn't easy, but it shows strength of character, and eventually the individual may see that and begin to show more respect in return.

The second, the individual has come looking for help, do your best to help.  This doesn't mean we should do their work for them, but help them figure out what is going on or how to do something better or easier.  Sometimes, this does mean providing code, but hopefully with some explanation as to how and why it works.  Other times it may just be asking them to read an article or certain sections in Books Online.  When doing that, let them know that you are still available if they still have questions after doing the reading.  It may help them, but they may still be confused or have new questions about what they are doing or the problem they are trying to solve.

The third principle is that you, yourself, need to have someone one you can go to and vent your frustrations with when you feel like exploding.  This may be a coworker, or another member of the forum that you can contact separately.  By allowing yourself an avenue to release your own stress, you won't take it out on the individual you are trying to help.

And as I write this, a fourth principle comes to mind, and that is to ask others to help as well.  You may be struggling with an individuals problem, and can't seem to figure out what they want or need.  Ask for help from other members of the forum.  It could be as simple as misunderstanding the individuals requirements, to a language barrier.  Most of the SQL Server user sites are English language sites, but by nature of the Internet the people asking for help, English may not be their first or even second language.

Hopefully this makes some sense, and will help when you find yourself dealing that difficult forum user that is asking for help.  Remember, you were once on the other side of the coin.


Posted by Roy Ernest on 26 March 2009

You are the right person to right this blog Lynn. The Saint of SSC. :-)

I really admire your patience. And your knowledge. I have tried to look out for articles on Anger Management. So far nothing has worked. If the working environment is bad, you start to loose it very very fast.

Posted by Steve Jones on 26 March 2009

Good ideas and thoughts. It definitely helps to treat others as you'd want to be treated, even if they don't do the same.

Posted by Grant Fritchey on 28 March 2009

Excellent advice and from someone that really practices it too. Nice article.

Posted by RBarryYoung on 28 March 2009

Great article Lynn and thanks for the mention!

Posted by Jeff Moden on 7 April 2009

All good thoughts and principles.... but I don't take ad hominem attacks or the kind of rudeness I've seen on some of the posts in person... I'll not take it on the forum.  At best, I'll abandon the post and blacklist the user, possibly forever depending on what went on.  There are too many good people who need the help instead of spending time feeding the trolls.

Heh... Pork chops anyone?

Posted by YSLGuru on 7 April 2009

I used to work in phone support for a software company and we used email often with our customers (we had regular clients or accounts we dealt with verses a call queue of all callers) and one very important item to keep in mind is that email and anything else typed like forum posts are more often then not poor at conveying emotions.  Unlike with a phone call there is no easy to way to convey emotion in a typed message without becoming wordy or verbose and when it comes to email & internet posts, short & simple is king.

It's easy to take something teh worng way and have it spin out of control.  I imagine that this is why Lynne stresses the importance of stopping and thinking about what you are going to type before you hit that first key.

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