Have better online discussions.

AJ Pain
AJ Pain
Jul 13 · 6 min read

A few months ago, Vizzuality’s Science Team switched our weekly in-person meetings to full-remote. After noticing that online discussions don’t always flow as well as in-person conversations, we decided to reflect on how things are working. We’d be terrible Scientists if we didn’t measure things!

So, a couple of weeks ago we sent a survey to every person in the Science Team. We asked for their thoughts and feelings on the state of discussions, team spirit, load balancing, and team direction in light of these changes. Over the next weeks and months we plan to take a deeper dive into each of these themes. As we do, we’ll evolve the way we do things now we are fully remote.

This week the focus was discussions. After highlighting the issues we face, we identified four ways to make our online discussions better.

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Photo by Alphacolor on Unsplash

Awkward silences make good discussions harder to have.

The general feedback was that while we have space for open discussion — we weren’t doing it well, and in the move to full-remote calls we’d lost something. This is a really crucial point to solve in the case of the Science Team, since one of our core goals in these meetings is to have rich, open discussions about our work, research, the problems we face and how we solve them. In a group of 10 people it was becoming clear that this was not being facilitated as well as it had been previously.

More specifically, we highlighted a few issues:

  1. **Crickets chirping**
    Getting a large group of people to have a dynamic discourse in a video call is hard¹ and the whole ‘awkward silence’ thing has become a bit of an in-joke in our calls. It was happening more and more often…
  2. Too many side conversations ‘going down rabbit holes’ were happening which excluded people².
  3. The feeling that not everyone was talking, and therefore losing valued input from members of the team.
  4. Loss of dynamically flowing conversations: not knowing when to jump in, change topic, or ask questions³.
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Trying to jump into the discussion but instead dying a little inside.

Best practices to have better online discussions.

In the last call we took the opportunity to talk about each of the issues above in detail. What was amazing was that we actually managed to find some solutions organically as we were talking about the problems themselves! We came up with some tactics for having online conversations that we felt could minimise those occurrence of problems. Here they are listed below.

1. Make the topic of discussion clear.

Bounding the discussion’s field-of-play keeps everyone on topic and avoids the rabbit-hole/niche-conversation problem. The conversation can still be dynamic, and flow organically, but at least everyone will understand what’s relevant⁴ to talk about.

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So when the topic changes, make it clear what the new topic is: “okay, moving on to talk about…”. Check that the group is done before doing so. Use the agenda to your advantage here to plan the breaks ahead of time so you can jump in opportunistically when there’s a lull.

Another thing we discussed was having overarching topics that span several meetings — a sort of curriculum of extended themes. That way you have a mental map of what’s to be discussed way ahead of time. Again, really clarify the boundaries of what’s relevant to the discussion.

2. Throwing the ball, raising your hand.

One of the biggest issues is the silence and this most likely comes from people not wanting to interject unfairly. A solution to this is to very clearly prompt the next speaker by setting them up explicitly.

Whenever you’ve done talking, throw the ball.

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Throw the ball with passion!

It’s as simple as, “Hey, AJ — throwing the ball to you! What do you think?”

Passing the baton of conversation to the next person makes it clear when a speaker is done, and allows someone to step in without fear of interruption. If you get selected and have nothing to say, you can absolutely throw the ball again to somebody else. You can raise your hand whilst another person is speaking to prompt them to throw the ball to you (or, if they didn’t see you someone else can prompt them to — but we found that with a grid view raised hands generally tend to be spotted successfully).

We trialled this in our meeting and it worked very well. It sounds super robotic and forced but actually it’s pretty fun⁵ and after a few minutes it feels natural and everyone gets a turn to speak. Also, everyone is much less preoccupied with when to jump in, they can just worry about what they want to say when the ball lands on their lap!

If you’re only gonna try one thing, I’d recommend this one.

3. Use the chat!

Another frustration was about the inability to have proper side conversations. Someone’s talking about COGs and you’re sat there thinking “what’s a cog? ⚙️??” it can be quite hard to find a good point to halt the conversation for clarification. The result of this is that many questions are held onto and not asked — which is a shame.

A solution is to use the text chat to ask clarification-type questions.

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What IS a cough??

This lets side conversations happen without breaking the flow of discourse. It all happens in parallel. Maybe the speaker sees it and is prompted to clarify. Even better, someone else who does know the answer can jump in and clarify without any interruption at all.

Also, side-conversations can go here too!

4. Today’s host is…

Another idea was to change the ‘host’ of the call each week. It gives everyone a moment in the spotlight and mixes things up a little.

In addition to this we’re also doing a regular Show & Tell segment where one person (or a group of people) will take the mic for 10 minutes and show-off something cool they’ve been researching or working on.

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…mix things up with a regular show & tell!

This has worked really well for us so far and also gives us an opportunity for some informal feedback within the team. If you find yourself testing some of these techniques to improve your online conversations, let us know how it goes in the comments below!


Footnotes.

  1. speaking in video makes it difficult to follow the rules of conversation (more specifically, Grice’s Maxims of ‘Cooperative’ Conversation) which is why a lot of online conversations feel disjointed; people often talk over each other, interrupt, and there are long, painful silences between utterances. If you’re in a conversation and it feels wrong, you can guarantee that one or more of these rules is being broken. I’d definitely recommend having these rules in mind when thinking about what can be improved in any conversation — online or not.
  2. breaking Grice’s 1st rule (quantity), and pushing the 3rd (relation) to its limits as the speaker moves away from what’s relevant to the group.
  3. this coming from fear of breaking the 4th rule (manner). Online calls take away the ability to read the subtle social cues that we rely upon during in-person convos.
  4. making it clearer when a speaker might break rule no. 3 (relation).
  5. throwing the ball to someone who’s half-asleep for example (some teacher habits die hard).

AJ is a Scientist who loves space and skateboards. He finds ways to add context to data visualisations, making them easier to understand and use.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and…

AJ Pain

Written by

AJ Pain

Data Scientist with a skateboard.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

AJ Pain

Written by

AJ Pain

Data Scientist with a skateboard.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

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