I have heard discussions about “diversity of thought” as a goal in putting together productive, highly-functioning, multi-perspective groups. I agree in theory, however, there are times when it might be more productive to filter certain destructive brands of thought out of conversations. Over the past several years, I have observed many a quick downward spiral from debate to personal attack in conversations amongst people with diverse political perspectives. As social norms change and people become more entrenched in their polarized positions, we need to explore and commit to some basic ground rules of respect before engaging in difficult conversations with people who think very differently than we do.

Recently, sparked by my Facebook status indicating my opinion about a news-related item, a heated battle broke out on my wall amongst my “friends” with a wide range of views along the political spectrum. As an aside, it’s not yet clear to me what the new definition of “friend” is in this space: one of the primary contributors in this electronic brawl was Tammy, a “friend” from my high school who I didn’t actually remember when I accepted the original “friend” request. Not long ago, I also “unfriended” someone else for what I found to be an entirely offensive status, and a “brand” of thought which I didn’t want to be associated with, even electronically.

The Facebook conversation took on a life of its own, lasting far longer and with many more replies than normal, with just a few additional comments from me along the way. When my “friends” started personally attacking one another, I reached out to a few key individuals–from both ends of the political spectrum–who I thought might be able to bring the level of debate back to a civil discourse. Many tried, yet Tammy was unable or unwilling to make the leap back from personal attacks to intellectual engagement. Finally, I decided it best to filter Tammy out of the conversation by “unfriending” her, leaving behind only the rational debate.

Tammy provided a spark, which generated a lot of discussion around an interesting topic, yet very little productivity or enlightenment resulted. Ultimately, I decided that conversation with Tammy wasn’t worth the investment in time and energy, so I gave up and shut her out. I’m not convinced that this was the right path to take, but it felt like the necessary choice for me at the time. How could I have handled it better? Do different perspectives always add value? What are some ways to lay out some ground rules for discourse in these new social spaces?

by Lisa Stewart, Program Manager
Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics