How To Promote Dialogue On Social Media

What’s the best way to promote dialogue on social media? It’s a question I’ve come up against in two separate “lively threads” this week.

I really don’t like online debates. I know some people really enjoy them, but that’s not me. If I see two sides of a conversation squaring up, I usually disengage and take my attention elsewhere.

But sometimes, as in these two cases for me, that isn’t appropriate. It was my responsibility to stay and play. So I took action to turn the threads into what I wanted them to be.

Touch wood, I think I’ve played a role in keeping these two conversational, rather than adversarial. Both threads led to surprising insights and to deepened relationships between the participants.

So, what’s the trick? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do have many years of experience!

A central idea that I like to keep in mind is the distinction between debate and dialogue. How I have it mapped is this:

  • A “debate” has a winner and a loser: it’s a zero-sum game. That means it’s about taking fixed positions and seeking to persuade with a “killer” argument.
  • A “dialogue”, at its best, is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s a generative conversation, in which people learn from each other and inspire each other to more interesting thoughts and constructive actions.

As I wrote that, in my mind’s ear I could hear the “debaters” arguing back. “Oh no it’s not!” I heard them state. Then, as the imaginary voice began to make its point with rhetorical flourishes and sleight-of-mouth twists, I lost interest…

The thing is, the debater’s really not interested in me, or what I think. He’s interested in himself, what he thinks, and how well he can say it.

In dialogue, by contrast, we’re all in it together. Me saying what I think matters: me hearing what you think matters, too. If either of us fails to voice an important point, it reduces the wisdom in the system and increases the risk of groupthink. The consequences are similar if either of use fails to listen well, or to acknowledge what is being said.

So, if I can find ways to shift the tone from debate to dialogue, I win 🙂

My tip tips to promote dialogue on social media:

  • Don’t just respond to what’s just been said. Reflect first, getting your modelling head on. As David Grove used to ask, “What needs to be true for what is there to make sense?”
  • Emphasise the fact that posters are actual people: address them by name and mention shared experiences and things you know about them
  • Reward constructive posts with attention and replies. Minimise attention to anything nasty: if it’s really unpleasant the admin can usually delete it quite discreetly
  • Divert the discourse to aspects that interest you, rather than the parts of the subject that cause the most friction
  • Look for quick wins. What positive change can this thread help to bring about in the world?
  • Be aware that on most social media platforms, the fact that there’s a lively thread will bring in a second, third or fourth wave of participants who weren’t there when the thread started. Make sure these newcomers notice that they’re in a space with thoughtful, intelligent human beings, and can’t mistake it for a bar-room brawl.
  • As ever on social media, never post in lively threads when Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired – or after a few drinks. Keep quiet. If it’s all kicking off and its somehow your responsibility, message a friend and ask for help. But DON’T POST.

What do you think? Am I mad to post about this? Barking to dislike debate? Profoundly misguided in my recommendations? Please comment below!

4 thoughts on “How To Promote Dialogue On Social Media”

  1. Judy

    you make a useful distinction between debate and dialogue.
    Its always useful (to me) to be reminded of one’s intent and be mindful of the distinction between making and scoring a point!

    fond regards

  2. Pirjo Mikkola

    A most useful and positive post with good tips to take after. It’s rewarding to take part in a dialogue, to co-create ideas.
    Thanks Judy!

  3. Ashley Meerloo

    Judy… this is a very good post… as seen with certain US tweeters… when dialogue is not encouraged it bitterly does become a ‘War of Words’! And thanks, as Maurice said, for the two definitions… very helpful!

  4. Jeremy Dent

    If the thesis and antithesis are heard well and positively, then it results in a great synthesis!

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