The Internet is a den of trolls, a place where critical thinking and deep conversation is often rare and unwanted. Fortunately, there are places where you can find serious discussions that are well-moderated and more meaningful than the usual drivel. When you encounter such threads, how can you make the most of them?
Looking past the memes and jokes and shallow talk of the mainstream Internet, it’s clear that polite and insightful dialogue can be useful for networking, developing relationships, encouraging thought, and engaging with audiences. Does that sound like something you’d like?
Be Helpful and Build Up
What is the number one rule of fruitful online discussions? Maintain a positive attitude.
I’m not talking about the kind of new age, self-help, “you can do anything if you put your mind to it” nonsense that tends to steer towards delusional territory. I’m not talking about putting on a fake smile and pretending to be customer service to those in your dialogue. A lack of authenticity does not bode well for healthy conversation.
I’m talking about common courtesy (not very common these days) and genuine politeness (also not very common on the Internet). Throw away your arrogance, your condescension, and your snark. Don’t forget that there are real people on the other side of those comments and posts.
You’d be surprised how much more fruit can be borne from a discussion where everyone respects each other.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
If you want to provoke more vibrant conversation, ask open-ended questions that dig into the topic at hand.
Shallow questions beget shallow answers, which results in shallow discussion. Questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” don’t really encourage elaboration. In the same vein, fact-based questions with factual answers. These questions are divorced from human opinion and human experience and, therefore, divorced from insight.
Want to steer towards thoughtful dialogue? Ask questions that have many possible answers. Ask questions that have no right answers. Ask for opinions and rationale. Ask hypotheticals. Each answer will be colored by the responder’s viewpoint and that’s how you cultivate interesting talk.
One caveat: open-ended questions require open-ended minds. If you’re looking for a fight, don’t even bother. If you aren’t willing to accept someone’s answers for what they are — even if you disagree — then don’t ask.
Explore Shared Interests
People like to talk about things that interest them.
The easiest way to get someone to spill thirty minutes of their thoughts is to point the discussion onto a topic that they hold dear to their heart. Passion is hard to bottle up once the floodgates are opened and passion is fundamental for truly authentic engagement and disclosure.
When dialogue is centered on a shared interest between participants, the verbal exchange (or written exchange when on the Internet) takes on a life of its own. Some of the most fascinating discussions I’ve ever read have been between those who passionately believe in the words that come out of their mouths.
Just be careful that passion doesn’t turn into aggression or defensiveness. If that happens, it may be a sign that the conversation is verging on unfruitful.
Argue the Point, Not the Person
When a discussion turns into an argument, remember to avoid logical fallacies.
The ad hominem is one of the easiest and most ubiquitous debate tactics that occur on the Internet. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone start their rebuttal with “You’re an idiot” and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess how well those back-and-forth exchanges go. The same is true for other fallacies, such as the straw man, the anecdote, etc.
Debate is good. It’s a legitimate and effective way to temper arguments, to find flaws in logic, and to ultimately arrive at a stronger position. But it’s important to remember that civil debate is the key. The “I have to win no matter what” attitude is a surefire way to snuff critical thinking, destroy engagement, and burn relationships.
On the flipside, keep yourself in check that you don’t mistake someone’s attack on your argument to be an attack on you. Don’t take it personally when someone disagrees. Be humble and open to correction and you’ll have something to gain from every conversation from here on out.
Are you mindful of the way you approach online interactions? What sort of tips and tactics do you employ when engaging with others on the Internet? How do you maximize the fruit of an online discussion? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!