March 11, 2016

Threads Unravel If We Don't Build On Them


A recurring frustration with online communities is when people start new discussion threads for a question or conversation when one already exists.

Doing so takes up valuable space on the main web page of discussions, as well as in the limited "attention space" of community members.

Actively moderated communities sometimes merge duplicate threads, but this seems to be more the exception than the rule. Until web designers create sites that detect duplicate posts ("It looks like you're about to start a discussion that already exists here ...", the change needs to happen at the user level.

In other words, before starting a new conversation thread, I need to search and determine if one already exists. If I locate one and take the time to review previous comments in it, I can make a more informed contribution to an existing conversation.

While particularly relevant for online discussions, the same general principle holds true for face-to-face discussions. It can be challenging when people step into an ongoing discussion and share an opinion or raise a question that pulls the conversation back to a place from which it has already progressed.

So what to do? As participants in conversations, be they online or in person, we have an opportunity to engage responsibly.  Here are a few approaches I use:
  • Search online for existing conversation threads/posts to see if my topic already exists before I start a new thread. This often requires scanning beyond the main page of discussions and/or trying multiple terms in a search field. Organizations can help by using more robust search engines and by merging duplicate discussion threads.
  • When joining a group that has been operating for some time (i.e., a staff team, a volunteer committee or board), make sure I read appropriate background materials (meeting minutes, strategic plans, et al) and/or talk to existing members to build my understanding of past efforts and present context. Organizations can help with more effective new member orientations and easy access to relevant documents.
  • When unsure if what I want to add to a conversation is appropriate or helpful, I often preface my remark with "I wonder if ... " Doing so can make it easier for others to point out if my point was addressed in a previous meeting or otherwise redirect the conversation. Organizations can help by capturing key conversation themes in real-time and visually noting them for all group participants to see.
Stephen Covey is well-known for his valuable advice to Seek First to Understand. Then to Be UnderstoodIn the world of online communities and transient in-person conversations, a slightly modified corollary is Search First to Understand (what has already been discussed). We are more likely to be understood when our contributions to a conversation demonstrate that we have done so.

P.S.  When facilitating, I often encourage groups to adopt "Build on others' contributions" as one of their shared agreements for conversation.