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Engagement Best Practices

5 Ways to Facilitate Respectful Online Discussions


In our “4 Reasons Discussions Strengthen Your Online Consultation” blog post, we explored the many benefits of incorporating open and transparent dialogue as part of your online public consultation: both between the consultation proponent and participants, as well as between participants.

However, online discussion forums can be fraught with issues around trolling, spamming, harassment, and otherwise crude and inappropriate behaviour that can deter others from participating. Bad behaviour is rife online — just look at the many media outlets which have closed their comments sections in response. In this post we will explain the best practices that help reduce risk, mitigate issues, and facilitate respectful online discussions between all parties.

1. Establish clear guidelines and terms of participation

Establish a clear code of conduct for participants. Everyone’s expectation of what is acceptable differs and therefore you will need to define exactly what is appropriate and what will not be tolerated. Organizations engaging through PlaceSpeak benefit from our platform guidelines which have evolved over several years, hundreds of consultations and thousands of comments.

It is important to be consistent about enforcing the guidelines once they have been made public. If you do then you will find that participants quickly understand how to contribute to a healthy discussion.

2. Write clear and precise questions

Avoid questions that are so broad or ambiguous such that participants won’t know how to respond, and information collected is essentially useless. Clear, precise and specific questions allow participants to respond to a concrete ask, which keeps them on track.

In order to get the most out of your discussion, questions should start with the “five Ws and one H”: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

Here’s an excellent example from Duke University:

Don’t write: Why are social networking sites harmful? (What exactly is this question asking? This is also a leading question — it starts with the assumption that social networking sites are harmful and primes participants to respond in a similar manner.)

Instead, write: How are you experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter? (This question is specific, has a clear scope, and provides examples of social networking sites to provide context for respondents.)

3. Avoid meaningless anonymity

“Anonymity breeds contempt.” Nowhere is this statement truer than on the Internet. By hiding behind pseudonyms, trolls and cyberbullies act with impunity and turn others off from engaging. PlaceSpeak avoids this issue by authenticating digital identity as part of the user sign-up process: we believe that people should take responsibility for the things they say online.

However, there are times where people may not want to be publicly associated with their statements for good reason. They may hold an unpopular opinion which may compromise their job, or lead to ostracization in the community. With that in mind, PlaceSpeak users can choose not to have their name shown publicly on discussion boards. We call this authenticated anonymity: users can be publicly anonymous in order to speak their mind on controversial issues, though their identity will already have been authenticated in order to engage on the platform.

That said, in all the years that PlaceSpeak has had this feature, we have found that less than 5% of users choose to be anonymous. In a controversial discussion around a proposed immigration detention center in Elkhart County, IN, hundreds of comments were registered without a single troll or inappropriate online behaviour. We have observed that once people are authenticated, they are willing to take responsibility for what they say and participate in a mature and respectful manner.

4. Pre-moderation of comments

Participants can be especially unpredictable when engaging on a controversial or sensitive topic. If your organization doesn’t have the resources to regularly monitor new comments and facilitate the online discussion, it can be beneficial to enable pre-moderation.

Pre-moderation of discussion comments on Surrey School District's consultation topic.

Pre-moderation of discussion comments on Surrey School District’s consultation topic.

While pre-moderation reduces transparency and can be perceived as trying to exert control over the message, being able to turn this feature on or off can be useful. You may even find that the above recommended steps were enough to reduce bad behaviour, and find yourself turning this feature off.

5. Be an active part of the discussion

The best way to keep the discussion flowing in a positive and constructive manner is to become part of the discussion. Engage with participants, respond to their questions and comments in a timely fashion, and ask further questions if you’re curious about something that they’ve brought up. Just like a moderator in a debate, keep a close eye on the conversation, bring the discussion back on track when it goes off-topic, and intervene when the need arises.

Remember that you’re not participating in the discussion to defend a certain stance or promote an agenda. You’re there to ensure that the conversation goes smoothly, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the content being generated. Participants will respect the process more and engage in a civil manner when they see that you are interested in genuine dialogue, not just there to “decide, announce and defend”. On the contrary, participants will quickly become defensive and aggressive if they perceive that the consultation is a farce and that you are just there to push your organization’s agenda.

If you found this post interesting and useful, we’d appreciate if you would share and subscribe to our blog.

To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.


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  1. Selina Perveen April 5, 2016

    To me, if we restrict on anonymity people will be discouraged to opine. At the same time users privacy and confidentiality will be in question specially if someone is from a conservative family. Moreover data should also support ” Why” of the survey.

    1. Mary Leong April 6, 2016

      Hi Selina, thank you for your comment. PlaceSpeak is conscious that there are various circumstances that may lead people to prefer not having their name publicly available, such as on controversial topics or for fear of repercussions from the rest of the community. Please take a look at our article on authenticated anonymity, which demonstrates how users can be publicly shown as anonymous (but they will still have to be verified to participate).

      Of course, the privacy of our users is our top priority — we are a Privacy By Design ambassador and the personal information of participants is never distributed, sold, or otherwise shared to any other company.

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