Guest Post: Conflict Resolution

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By: Matt Wells

This week I am pleased to share with you a post written by Matt Wells, an L1 judge from Athens, GA. I’ve worked a lot lately with Matt at local events, and his approach to players is always extremely respectful and professional. I wasn’t terribly surprised to find out that he had professional background in mediation, but when I did find this out, leveraging his experience and perspective into a blog post seemed like a no-brainer. One thing I really enjoy about judging is when real-life skills can find positive application in this realm, and I can think of few more applicable skills than conflict management.

De-Escalating Tense Situations

Often judging seems to break down into corner-case rules (What happens when I cast a kicked Rite of Replication on a Precursor Golem … and then do it again?), policy issues (My DDLP also is also receiving a game loss for marked cards. Is the match over?), and tournament management (WER went down…again…and then the printer crapped out), but I think this blog addresses some of the items that are not, necessarily, as obvious on the outside of the judge world.

One important thing (important enough to be an advertised “L3 Quality” http://blogs.magicjudges.org/articles/2013/12/03/l3-qualities-stress-and-conflict-management/) is conflict management. Or you could call it de-escalation. Or you could call it mediation. Whatever you call it, Magic is a competitive game, and when things get competitive, people get angry. My experience with this is well outside of Magic (I had a brief stint as a court-appointed mediator), but similar techniques work fairly universally (and let’s be honest, people should be more invested in what is going on in a courtroom than at a Magic event).

We as judges are present to ensure that a tournament runs well and that everyone abides by the rules of the game. The rules do not really address “This gal got super salty” — we have warnings, game losses, match losses, disqualifications, and a TO can remove them from the store…but none of those address the root issue. Not even the statement “I am not here to play favorites, just so ensure the integrity of the tournament” will help (actually, never say that as the first thing when you walk into a heated situation).

So how can we actually be proactive in bringing things down to an appropriate level? It is hard to make generalities about this; each situation is going to be different. But I’m going to try.

First, think of how you are approaching the situation. I mean this in the literal, physical sense. If you are walking over to the table and hear, “Wouldn’t even need a judge if you weren’t such a liar!” you should be on high alert. Remember your posture (see this post). Keep your body posture in the calm realm – arms uncrossed, body relaxed, friendly and approachable. Don’t say things like, “Let’s just calm down.” It is only going to make people more angry.

Next you can begin to work on defusing the situation. The quick and easy advice is to separate the players and make sure you listen to each side. I am going to take it a step further and say make sure you start with hearing their side of the story. “What’s going on?” or a similar question that let’s them start the explanation instead of “Your opponent said X happened” will go a long way toward putting someone at ease. Then recap this back to them – “Okay, so let me make sure I am understanding you…” You have now proven that you heard what they said, they have something of an ally.

So what if that did not work?

Another strategy is to make sure and present the ‘loser’ in a situation with options. So for Hidden Card Error the options are a thoughtseize fix or you can always concede. Even though concession seems unlikely, enabling the player to feel like they have the power to choose something can often make people less defensive.

What if none of that worked and the player is REALLY ticked off?

If you are not taking the judge call, but are judging the event, you can be just as helpful (if not more helpful) in calming down a truly enraged player. In my experience one of the best things you can do to get a person away from their anger and get them to a place where you can actually begin walking/talking through what is going on is to distract them from the issue at hand. This is literally using a treat to distract your dog from chasing the cat. We are animals deep down. By getting someone off of the issue at hand (what they are mad about) and on to something else (whoa, that’s a sweet deck box) we naturally calm down a bit.

What if even THAT didn’t work?

Send them to the penalty box. Just don’t call it that. Have them go outside and take a breather, maybe walk around the block or something. Give them a reasonable amount of time to chill out a bit. Hopefully they can come back with a clearer head.
What if all of that didn’t work?

At this point, things have gone way off the path of normal judge interactions. We are at the point where people are potentially getting physical, angry, etc. This is when you lean on the TO. If people are getting physical, help encourage other players to positions of safety and let the TO handle things – they may call the cops, eject the player, etc. None of that is your direct concern (remember, we are here to run a tournament). You may have some DCI paperwork to fill out on the other side of things, but really this is time to step out and hands off the whole situation.

These are just a few practical tips – situations involving angry people are fluid and you have to do the best with what you have and the situation you find yourself in. There is no rule set or checklist that will work to sort these issues out. Sometimes the techniques noted above work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes nothing you do helps and they resolve things themselves because they figured out they both hate Miracles so now the storm count they were fighting about is no longer “total BS” because they have agreed that “Really, Miracles is total BS.” You never know, people are weird and how we deal with conflict even weirder.

This piece offers some great strategies to employ the next time you find yourself with an irate player (or even judge or TO!). I want to stress that this is, ultimately, a game we are dealing with, and anything we can do to help everyone involved having a good time is really for the best of everyone. Tense situations happen, but using some of the tips above should allow you to keep your events as positive s possible, sometimes without the players even realizing how effectively you’ve de-escalated a situation for them. There is no reason that your events can’t be light and fun, even when there are significant prizes on the line. Tempers flare, and tensions rise, but it’s within your power to keep everyone focused on why they came in the first place: to have fun playing this great game we all enjoy!

As always, I want to hear YOUR stories as well. If you have a unique view on some aspect of judging, or a unique skill set to apply, or even just something neat you’ve seen or done, let me know so I can help spread your story.

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