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Four Discussion Disciplines to Drive Effective Online Collaboration

How many times have you stepped back from a conversation on Twitter, Facebook, or an enterprise social network (or even an email chain at work) because some of the participants were grandstanding, debating, or rambling and you couldn’t keep track? Maybe you’ve even unintentionally contributed to such a problem.

By Katrina Pugh | Lecturer, IKNS 

As William Isaacs writes in Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together (Doubleday Currency, 1999), “In discussions we often don’t reflect. We reload.” Confusion, alienation, and escalation conspire to block effective interaction online. These missteps thwart engagement, creativity, and collaboration.

Fortunately, the science of organizational learning provides us with disciplines to address four of the most common problems that occur during online discussions. Early in the first course of the Information and Knowledge Strategy master’s program at Columbia, we introduce these concepts.

  1. Integrity: Use your true voice. Don’t “parrot” without thought. Research your views before you speak. Ask clean questions.
  2. Courtesy: Respect others and the forum. Engage inside the forum, not in private or sideline discussions. Show gratitude.
  3. Inclusion: Pull in participants, such as by using @name replies. Increase, rather than narrow, participation in a thread; explain new terms for all to comprehend, for example.
  4. Translation: Continually summarize and use the insights that have been shared and generated. Help others with their summarizations.

We ask students to use the discussion disciplines in their weekly assignments. They hold each other accountable and observe one other trying new ways of engaging. Then, each student develops a strategy to improve his or her own effectiveness in the four disciplines.

The four discussion disciplines have obvious benefits beyond an academic setting. Students who apply them at work have told me that they are growing as leaders, online as well as in person. Often they’re amazed at how, for example, courtesy invites respect and replaces defensiveness with curiosity, inclusion activates the silent voice of the group, translation helps move the ball forward and eases entry of the new voices and opinions into the group, and integrity — clean questions and statements — invites inquiry, not position-taking. All four disciplines are essential for generative conversation, and ultimately, for successful collaboration.