Effective Online Dialogue – Part 1

“Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery,
of party, faction, and division of society.” ~John Adams

In English class we learn that an author writes to inform, persuade, or entertain. With the ascendancy of social media, and its ability to turn anyone with an Internet connection into an “author,” I often wonder if the list should be expanded to read: inform, persuade, entertain, or inflame.

In reflecting on how technology has enabled communication, I would make two observations:

1. Technology has erased many of the time and distance barriers to communication, creating a much larger “marketplace of ideas” to a broader audience than ever before.

2. Our collective skill at effectively communicating with differing viewpoints in this marketplace has not risen to be equal to the tools available.

Put another way, we’re being exposed to a lot of rough ideas that are different than what we’re used to… and we’re not very good at dealing with it.

It used to be that people were exposed in a fairly controlled manner to ideas that were different from their own. New or contrary ideas were typically passed to the masses through filters such as books, magazines, or television productions. The information was carefully assembled and was largely one direction. Raw and unrefined concepts and opinions were rarely available outside of ubiquitous insular communities. When they were presented, it was usually in a face-to-face setting where people could ask immediate questions and read nonverbal cues.

Now we have a flood of “information,” much of it unfiltered, unsubstantiated… and undeveloped. This flood is washing over a public that appears largely unprepared to effectively filter, substantiate and develop the ideas and opinions on their own. Contrary viewpoints (often presented as irrefutable dogma) are commonly met with visceral reactions that don’t devolve into a “flame war” simply because they start as one.

But what can be done about it? Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, discusses how some schools have adopted courses that instruct their students how to improve their overall interactions with each other. The results are encouraging. Another book, Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny & Switzler), addresses tools specific to effective communication “where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.” Much like our political discourse today.

So, there is reason to believe that the solution may lie in education. The question then becomes whether people are willing to rise to the challenge to improve their dialogue skills, or if inflammatory vitriol is our new standard for political discourse.