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Hard Conversations

by Mike on 25 December 2023

Whether we like it or not, whether it's fair or not, GMs often find themselves in the position of needing to have hard conversations with people. Maybe it's a player who isn't fitting in well with the group. Maybe it's someone upset with the way the game is going. There's lots of reasons but beyond just running the game, we often find ourselves in the position of managing the group. Group Management is hard for anyone – not just GMs. But when we find ourselves in this situation, it's best to have some ideas for how to handle it.

Address the Problem, Not the Person

First, we need to understand the problem. What's really going on? What are all the sides and views? Focus on the problem, not the people. If we attack the person, we're not going to get anywhere. It's not our job to fix people. It's our job to get our game running in a fun direction. What are the behaviors and the circumstances causing problems? Address those issues directly.

Don't attack the behavior of the person themselves. Focus on the situation and its causes affecting the game at the table. Look at the situation objectively and separate it from the individuals. Certainly people are responsible for their actions at the table but it's the situation you're trying to correct, not the person.

Know Your Goal

What do you want your hard conversation to accomplish? Maybe write down your goals and objectives and the things you need to reach them. What are you aiming for with your hard conversation? Are you trying to modify behavior? Are you trying to have a player demand less of the spotlight? Are you trying to avoid arguments during the game? Are you trying to give quiet players more attention? Are you trying to make sure you're having fun at the table too? Write down, review, and try to really understand the goal of your hard conversation. What would it look like if it all worked out?

Recognize Your Own Bias

All of us approach situations from an angle. None of us has objective truth. There are many variables we're not seeing. We are not the people we're talking to. We don't walk in their shoes. So we know that what we're seeing is our own observations and our own feelings. It's best to conduct the conversation recognizing this view. This is where the idea of stating how you feel and what you're seeing is better than dropping "truths". People often simplify this idea to statements like "sometimes I feel like X" where X is the problem going on. It's cliche but it can work.

Handle It One-on-One

You might be tempted to have such hard conversations in a group but public confrontation is almost always a bad idea. Handle hard conversations one-on-one. Step away from the group. Talk in a separate channel if you're online or in a separate room if you're in person. Have such conversations either in person, with face-to-face video, or in an audio call. We're always tempted to have such conversations in text or email because it's much easier but it's almost always the wrong way to handle it. It's hard but direct conversations are best.

Be Honest and Direct

Given your own recognition that what you're saying isn't objective truth, it's still best to be as honest and direct as you can. Tell them what's going on. Be specific. Tell them what needs to happen for the game to continue and what happens if it doesn't work out.

If you're dealing with a situation and, after you've done your deep dive into the cause, recognize that the only way forward is for a member to leave the group, it may be best to just go your separate ways.

"I'm sorry but having you in this game isn't working out. I'm afraid I have to ask you to leave the group."

It's easy, in the stress of the situation, to fill the air with lots of words, get into arguments, and so forth but it's often best to just say it and move on. Let them say what they're going to say but stand firm if you really think it's not going to work out.

No one likes being kicked out of a group. As social animals, we have hundreds of thousands of years of evolution fighting against leaving a group. That's all going to come up with situations like this. Defensiveness, anger, remorse, bargaining; all of it may come up but, if you feel it's not going to work out, best to just focus on the goal and move on.

Handle Big Problems Right Away

Sometimes things can get really nasty during a game. As a GM, unfortunately, it's your responsibility to shut down harmful behavior fast. These behaviors might include racism, misogyny, sexual harassment, violations of safety tools, or anything that hurts the game or the players playing it. You don't have time to step back and ponder the matter. You need to handle it right away. Pause the game. Talk to people one-on-one. Do your best to keep your own emotions out of the situation. But, above all, handle the situation as best you can at the moment before more damage is done. It’s not easy to do but it’s important.

An Unfair but Necessary Job

It's not fair that GMs get put in this position but we're often in it. It's our game. We're the ones invested enough to bring everyone together. Anytime people get together there can be conflicts. Taking as objective a view as we can and trying to get to a solution we can all live with is the best we can do. We won't be perfect but maybe we can resolve issues with as little damage as possible.

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