March 15, 2017

Automoderation

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author only.

[For a quick review, jump to the summary or chart of signs.]

Group discussions can easily become unwieldy. Certain individuals have a tendency to dominate the conversation, limiting others’ ability to contribute. When the goal is collaborative truth seeking, this is counter productive. Those who are excluded from the discussion may be exactly the ones with the necessary insights to advance the dialogue toward the truth. To deal with this and other issues, a moderator is sometimes appointed. However, traditional moderation may introduce too much friction and is geared toward potentially combative dialogue. A lighter-weight system intended for more collaborative discussions is helpful. To address this, a system of hand signals called automoderation was created. Automoderation has been used in the rationality community in Columbus, Ohio, for almost two years now with good success.

The rationality community should ostensibly be seeking the truth in any discussion. One might imagine that rationalists, cognizant of the pitfalls of group discussion and genuinely seeking truth, would manage their discussions better than others. However, human nature still dominates and there are often individuals involved who have underdeveloped social skills. For example, they may struggle to signal that they wish to speak or fail to notice the social signals that they are inappropriately dominating the conversation. Additionally, a focus on thinking through the subject and developing genuine insight often draws cognitive resources away from preparing a quick response as might be needed to jump into the middle of a conversation. It can be helpful, in that situation, to have a method of signaling one’s desire to speak, and be given adequate time by the group to formulate one’s thoughts.

In larger and more formal settings a moderator can be appointed. They become responsible for determining who may speak and for how long. They facilitate discussion, ensuring that all members with standing are given a chance to speak and no one inappropriately dominates the conversation. A moderator can also facilitate metadiscussion about procedure, topics, and participant needs while ensuring the debate isn’t derailed by them. However, in smaller or less formal settings a traditional moderator may not be called for and there may be no one willing to fill the role. Yet, the smaller or less formal setting does not always obviate the need for some degree of moderation.

The rationality community in Columbus, Ohio, found itself in the position of needing a system of moderation for their discussions, in particular for a rationality dojo. A little over two years ago Max Harms along with another member of the community created a system of hand signals supporting moderation in smaller, less formal settings. This system was inspired by the Occupy movement hand signals. When all participants know the hand signals, a moderator may not even be needed. A moderator is still useful, but often does little besides clarifying the system and consequently introduces very little friction. This system of hand signals is called automoderation. It has been used successfully in groups as small as 3 to 4 people and as large as 15 to 20.

Automoderation embodies a wait rather than an interrupt culture. Interrupt culture may be fine for a causal fun conversation, but collaborative truth seeking is aided by a wait culture. Traditional moderation systems such as Robert’s Rules of Order are intended to handle parliamentary proceedings and combative discussion. This system is intended for use in a more cooperative group discussion.

Automoderation Hand Signals

The automoderation system requires participants to sit in a circle. The flow of who speaks proceeds clockwise based on hand signals used to indicate desire for and purpose of speaking. There are five hand signals each having a different priority. Higher priority signals take precedence. The primary signal is simply raising the hand indicating the desire to expand on the current discussion topic. People new to automoderation are encouraged to use expand if they are in doubt as to the correct signal to use. Each signal indicates a different intent of the speaker. In addition, some signals modify the flow of the discussion. In order from lowest to highest priority, they are a raised fist indicating change topic, the pinkie finger extended indicating a probing question, a raised hand indicating a desire to expand on the topic, the pointer finger extended indicating a clarifying question, and two hands forming a triangle with the thumbs and forefingers indicating meta point. The hand signals are illustrated in the chart below. A high-resolution version of this chart suitable for printing as a poster can also be downloaded.

Automoderation Hand Signals Chart

Hand Signal Chart placed in the Public Domain

The meta signal is used to raise points regarding the nature or situation of the discussion. Meta signals are relatively rare but often important. They include such things as: keeping the discourse focused on the topic at hand; clarifying the rules of automoderation; requesting changes to the environment or situation such as getting a drink, taking a break, or going to the bathroom; requesting information about the discussion, for example, how long it is planned to run; addressing concerns of tone and undesirable behavior; and dealing with strong emotional reactions.

A clarifying question asks a speaker to clarify something they said. This should be confined to instances of genuine ambiguity or confusion about what someone meant. After the question has been asked, the person is given a chance to briefly respond to the question but should stay focused on answering the question and avoid making additional statements. Typically, a clarifying question is raised while someone is speaking and the question is asked of them. Technically though, a clarifying question could be asked of anyone, not just the last speaker. This can happen when the confusion is not noticed until after another speaker has started.

Expand signals a desire to continue the conversation and expand on what has been said. This includes sharing ideas, opinions, experiences, and facts that are relevant. It is also used to respond to other speakers’ points and raise further questions or areas to be discussed. The majority of the signals used in a discussion are typically expand. Do not waste time making statements indicating agreement with other speakers; instead, use nonverbal hand signals described later to indicate agreement or disagreement.

A probing question is any question directed at a particular participant that is not a clarifying question. Probing questions can be used to explore a point in more depth. As with clarifying questions, the person the question is directed to is given a chance to respond. A probing question could be asked of anyone but is normally directed at the last speaker. Often, it makes more sense to transform a probing question into a statement of confusion or curiosity that can be directed to the whole group using the expand signal instead. This avoids the lower priority of the probing question signal and the potential for creating too much back and forth. It also gives other participants who may be better able to address the question the chance to weigh in.

Change topic signals that a participant wishes to change the topic. This can be because the current topic seems to have been discussed fully or there is simply a more interesting topic that they would like to discuss instead. Sometimes it is clear to multiple people that a topic is drawing to a close and one signal for a change topic will elicit multiple change topic signals in response. Generally, after a change in topic is proposed, a group decision is made, often using the approve and disapprove hand signals described later. One more pass around the circle may be allowed on the current topic so people can make closing remarks. If multiple people are requesting a change of topic, it is often worth seeing if there are multiple suggestions for the next topic and allowing the group to decide amongst them. There are situations when it may be appropriate to use meta to signal a desire to change topic instead. This might be the case if the current topic is too emotional for a participant to continue with or if, for reasons of time or agenda, it is important to move on to another topic even though the current topic is not complete. A change topic signal does not have to include a suggestion for the new topic.

Variations

The automoderation system should be taken as a set of guidelines rather than rules. Each community and group should adapt it to their needs. Someday it may become more codified and it might make sense to be more strict. Automoderation is still new and certainly has room for improvements to be discovered through experimentation. Additionally, there are situations it doesn’t cover. Those are instances where a moderator may need to step in and make a judgment call.

As originally created, the flow of who speaks always continued clockwise from whoever the last speaker was, regardless of which hand signal led to their speaking. If multiple people were signaling, the one with the highest priority was selected. Ties between signals of the same priority were broken by selecting the first person clockwise from the last speaker. This has the virtue of being very simple and clear. However, it means that people can be skipped over. For example, someone wishing to expand might be skipped because a person after them is using the meta signal. The skipped person would then not be able to speak until the flow came back around the circle. The same problem can arise when a question is asked since the flow continues from the respondent.

Simple Rules

  1. When someone is done speaking, call on people who are signaling a desire to speak.
  2. If two or more people are signaling, call on the one with the highest priority signal; break ties by going in a circle, clockwise from the last speaker.
  3. If someone asks a question (probing or clarifying), the person they ask should respond; flow continues from the question answerer.

In practice, the Columbus rationality community has not followed the simple rules but rather continues flow from a point that allows the skipped participants to speak next. This works well but is more complicated to keep track of. In this variation, flow may continue either from the last speaker who was not responding to a question or from a previous speaker depending on the relative priority of the signals involved. When multiple people are signaling, the one with the highest priority is selected. Ties are broken by selecting the first person clockwise from the appropriate participant. When the last speaker was expanding or requesting a change of topic, flow continues from their left. When the last speaker was responding to a probing question, flow continues from the left of the questioner. When first going up to the priority of a clarifying question or meta point from a lower priority signal, note the last speaker or if the last speaker was responding to a probing question, note the questioner. Flow continues from the noted person when returning to lower a priority. When the last speaker was making a meta point, flow continues to their left if there are more meta signals; otherwise, flow continues from the noted speaker. When the last speaker was responding to a clarifying question, flow continues from the questioner’s left if there are more clarifying questions or meta points; otherwise, flow continues from the noted speaker. If your group feels comfortable with this approach, it is the one currently recommended by the Columbus rationality community.

Standard Rules

  1. When someone is done speaking, call on people who are signaling a desire to speak.
  2. If two or more people are signaling, call on the one with the highest priority signal; break ties by going in a circle, clockwise from the appropriate participant.
  3. When the last speaker was expanding or changing the topic, flow continues from their left. If the next speaker is asking a clarifying question or raising a meta point, note the current speaker. This is the point flow will continue from when returning to a lower priority.
  4. When the last speaker was responding to a probing question, flow continues from the questioner’s left. If the next speaker is asking a clarifying question or raising a meta point, note the questioner. This is the point flow will continue from when returning to a lower priority.
  5. When the last speaker was making a meta point, flow continues from their left if the next speaker is also making a meta point; otherwise, flow continues from the previously noted participant.
  6. When the last speaker was responding to a clarifying question, flow continues from the questioner’s left if the next speaker is asking a clarifying question or making a meta point; otherwise, flow continues from the previously noted participant.
  7. If someone asks a question (probing or clarifying), the person they ask should respond.

Other variations on the system have been suggested but not tried to determine whether they are better. Some community members have suggested eliminating the probing question signal as it is rarely used. Its priority below expand discourages use. It can lead to back and forth discussion, and expand is typically a better signal to use instead. Other community members have suggested making the change topic signal not be a request to speak. Like the signals described below, it would be used only to communicate nonverbally to the group. If one wished to talk about the change of topic, they could raise a hand at the same time. This would go well with the removal of probing question as it would eliminate all signals with priority below expand.

In practice in Columbus, the change topic and probing question signals are sometimes treated as having the same priority as expand. This simplifies things slightly and doesn’t seem to cause problems. However, it does open up the possibility that someone could force discussion on a change of topic before other people are ready.

Other Hand Signals

In addition to the automoderation hand signals, the community has found it helpful to have a few other hand signals to facilitate communication without adding any auditory distraction to the discussion. The first few of these are so useful that they could be considered for official inclusion in the automoderation system. The rest of the signals should probably be taken as possible suggestions if the situation arises or a community finds the need for them.

A thumbs up is used to signal approval or agreement and a thumbs down to signal disapproval or disagreement. These can be used for informal voting when a change of topic or meta change is proposed. They may be used when someone makes a particularly good or enlightening point. It is important that they be interpreted and used to signal about the content of a speakers message and never as a judgment of the speaker themselves.

Two more signals are in occasional use. The first is the OK hand sign, which is used to indicate that you are listening and interested in what someone has to say. The second is to point the flat hand, palm down toward the speaker and wiggle the finger tips. This sign was imported by a few community members from CFAR and means “I feel you” or “This resonates with me”. That is subtly different from the thumbs up which implies something more like agreement. These signals have rarely been used in practice and may not be worth the complexity of having them.

It may be helpful to add a hand signal to keep track of where flow should start from when continuing after a meta or clarifying question. The noted speaker would make this sign so that others don’t have to mentally keep track of this. Flow would then continue from their left. Two suggestions for this signal have been made. The first is the “shaka sign” with the thumb and pinkie extended and the other fingers curled closed. The second suggestion is pointing to the left.

Examples

To help clarify the rules, here are some examples following the standard rules described above. Imagine Amy, Ben, Cora, and Dan wish to hold a discussion. They sit in a circle in that order. Here are how a number of scenarios would play out. For clarity, each scenario starts with Amy speaking.

While Amy is speaking, Cora raises her hand to expand. When Amy is done speaking, Cora speaks next because she is the only one with a hand raised. Flow continues from Cora when she is done.

While Amy is speaking, Ben and Dan raise their hands to expand and Cora signals a meta point. When Amy is done speaking, there are signals of priority higher than expand, so it is noted that flow will continue from Amy in the future. Cora speaks next because her signal is higher priority. When Cora is done, flow continues from Amy, so Ben will speak next.

While Amy is speaking, Ben signals a probing question and Dan wishes to expand. When Amy is done speaking, Dan speaks next because expand is higher priority than a probing question. When Dan is done speaking, since no other people wish to expand, Ben may ask his probing question. He asks it of Amy, who then responds. Flow then continues from Dan because flow continues from the questioner rather than the respondent.

Advantages

On the whole, the automoderation system has proved very successful and continues to be used in the Columbus, Ohio, rationality community. It is mainly used at the regularly scheduled meetings that are open to rationalists only; at these, everyone present knows the hand signals or can be expected to learn them as part of their initiation into the community. The advantages of using automoderation include:

  • It ensures that everyone is given an opportunity to speak. This is particularly valuable for those members who are more introverted, take longer to formulate a response, or have underdeveloped social skills. Women have also reported that this helps them participate in the discussion as they may have been socialized to wait longer before speaking or to be less aggressive in entering a conversation. When women are trying to participate in a male-dominated discussion, the automoderation system highlights the shift to a wait culture for all involved.
  • Having the system as a community norm enables members to initiate it when they see value in doing so. It is not uncommon, if there is a discussion going on in which someone feels they are not able to interject, for them to raise a hand. This serves as a reminder to the others present to make sure everyone is included in the discussion and often immediately triggers the use of automoderation.
  • A group of people who know the system often need no moderator at all as it is clear to all participants who the next speaker is.
  • The hand signals provide an easy nonverbal channel of communication to moderate the discussion that does not interfere in any way with the current speaker.
  • Many raised hands and other signals can indicate to a speaker that others wish to speak and it may be a good idea to bring their current remarks to a close to allow others to speak. This is made more palatable by the knowledge they will have another chance to speak when it comes around the circle again.
  • The requirement to select the appropriate hand signal can force one to clarify in their own mind the purpose of speaking and better plan their remarks.
  • The hand signals can be useful in situations where automoderation is not being used. In particular, the meta symbol can be used to good effect outside automoderation to indicate a desire to interrupt a conversation with a meta item. Often this is something the conversation members will feel constitutes a reasonable interruption.
  • By promoting wait culture, automoderation can help to train members of the community away from speaking as much as possible or as quickly as possible simply for the, often unconscious, purpose of gaining social status.

Disadvantages

While automoderation is a useful social tool, it is not without its drawbacks. It is important to be aware of these to help mitigate them.

  • There are times it would be better to allow a back and forth discussion between a few participants. Automoderation does not support this. This is a situation where a moderator can step in if needed.
  • Discussion points can pile up, so that by the time one has an opportunity to speak, there are now many things to respond to. It can be hard to keep track of all the threads that are now being discussed in parallel.
  • It is easy to lose track of what one was planning to say while waiting for others to speak.
  • The pile up of points can encourage people to move on rather than continuing to explore a point that it might be valuable to delve into more.
  • The topic can naturally drift as participants expand on each other’s statements.
  • If a participant is long winded or doesn’t make positive contributions to the discussion, it can be difficult to limit their disruption of the discussion.
  • Overuse of automoderation removes opportunity to practice valuable social discussion skills. Often, a conversation with fellow rationalists would otherwise be an ideal situation for this practice since they are likely to be more forgiving and supportive of one’s efforts to grow.

Applicability

There are situations it may not be appropriate to use automoderation. It is good to be aware of these so that one can judge when it would be more appropriate to simply have a discussion or to use another moderation system.

  • Automoderation breaks down in large groups. While it has been used with some success in groups of 15 to 20 that was only because not many participants actually wished to speak. Had all of them wished to speak, it likely would not have gone well.
  • It should not be the default for casual conversations amongst groups of friends.
  • Don’t use it for small groups of 3 to 4 unless the need becomes apparent or it is a more formal meeting.
  • Automoderation is probably best suited for groups of 5 to 10 people.
  • Automoderation is best suited for groups where all members are cognizant of the degree to which they can genuinely contribute to the discussion.
  • Don’t use automoderation when not enough participants are familiar with the system.

Etiquette

Some etiquette can help the automoderation system run more smoothly and ensure all participants feel included.

  • If someone has had their hand up for a while either because they have been skipped or for a change of topic or probing question, it is polite to avoid raising one’s hand so that they may speak.
  • If someone is wishing to speak, it is polite for the speaker to try and finish their point rather than going on at length, especially if they have a clarifying question.
  • Don’t waste time using expand to state agreement; instead, use the nonverbal hand signal of a thumbs up.

Summary

The hand signals in priority order, low to high, are:

  • Change Topic (Fist) – request to move on to another topic.
  • Probing Question (Pinkie Extended) – ask a question and receive a response.
  • Expand (Raised Hand) – make further statements about the topic.
  • Clarifying Question (Pointer Finger Extended) – ask a question to clear up confusion or ambiguity and receive a response.
  • Meta (Triangle) – raise an issue about the nature or context of the discussion.

Hand signals that are not a request to speak:

  • Approve/Agree (Thumbs Up)
  • Disapprove/Disagree (Thumbs Down)

Simple Variant

  1. When someone is done speaking, call on people who are signaling a desire to speak.
  2. If two or more people are signaling, call on the one with the highest priority signal; break ties by going in a circle, clockwise from the last speaker.
  3. If someone asks a question (probing or clarifying), the person they ask should respond; then flow continues from the question answerer.

Standard Variant

  1. When someone is done speaking, call on people who are signaling a desire to speak.
  2. If two or more people are signaling, call on the one with the highest priority signal; break ties by going in a circle, clockwise from the appropriate participant.
  3. When the last speaker was expanding or changing the topic, flow continues from their left. If the next speaker is asking a clarifying question or raising a meta point, note the current speaker. This is the point flow will continue from when returning to a lower priority.
  4. When the last speaker was responding to a probing question, flow continues from the questioner’s left. If the next speaker is asking a clarifying question or raising a meta point, note the questioner. This is the point flow will continue from when returning to a lower priority.
  5. When the last speaker was making a meta point, flow continues from their left if the next speaker is also making a meta point; otherwise, flow continues from the previously noted participant.
  6. When the last speaker was responding to a clarifying question, flow continues from the questioner’s left if the next speaker is asking a clarifying question or making a meta point; otherwise, flow continues from the previously noted participant.
  7. If someone asks a question (probing or clarifying), the person they ask should respond.

Experimental Variant

This experimental variant is based on feedback from members in the Columbus rationality community and has not been tried yet. It is like the standard variant with the following changes. Remove the probing question signal. The change topic signal is no longer a request to speak but is simply a nonverbal signal like approve or disapprove. Use the flow marker signal of pointing to the person to one’s left when going to a meta or clarifying question to indicate where flow should continue from.

Conclusion

Automoderation has been a very useful addition to the social toolbox of the Columbus rationality community. It has helped many discussions go smoothly and people to contribute and feel more comfortable participating in the dialogue. This post was written in the hope that other rationalist communities will find it useful and spread and improve the system. Take whatever parts seem useful and apply them as seems best.

Published: March 15, 2017
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