Listservs, forums and other discussion groups are great vehicles for asking questions and getting answers from the professional community. In my 20 years of participating in online discussions, I have learned a lot from my colleagues - both in response to my own questions and from reading answers to other people's questions.

But this medium is not without problems. There's no predicting how soon you'll get an answer, nor how useful the answer will be. You may get conflicting opinions from various people. You may not even get a response at all (which can be quite discouraging).

Some discussions may start off professional and quickly morph into silliness or nastiness. As a result, reticent group members who might have something important to say, are reluctant to post their comments, so as to avoid any wrangling.

For optimal information exchange in online professional forums, here are some tips:

If you are seeking an answer to a question

Make your subject line brief, but clear. Let's say your client is moving to Dallas, Texas and you want to refer him to a therapist there. In your subject line, don't just type "Referral." Be more specific, e.g., "Referral - Dallas TX." This will grab the attention of clinicians who practice in that area. If you think the person needs a certain kind of treatment, you can include that in the subject line as well. e.g., "Referral - EMDR - Dallas, TX"

In the body of the posting, state your request first, rather than at the end. As you know, people don't always read messages all the way through. Thus, instead of providing background data and building up to your question, start with your question and fill in the details later. e.g., "I need some input on ... in order to make a decision."

Thank people individually (backchannel) for responding, rather than waiting a few days and posting a generic "Thanks to all for your input" to the whole group. Consider that each person spent time composing their response to your request. Your brief personal acknowledgment takes just a few seconds, and will be appreciated and remembered.

Take most suggestions and opinions with a grain of salt. Online discussion groups are comprised of many people with various backgrounds and levels of expertise. Moreover, this medium is not conducive to in-depth analysis. At best, use the information as a starting point for further exploration from authoritative sources.

Don't hijack an existing message thread. If one or more people have posted their thoughts about one topic (e.g., antidepressant medications), don't introduce a topic that is unrelated to the discussion. That's not just bad etiquette. It also reduces the likelihood that many people in your intended audience will never see your message, because the original conversation thread is of no interest to them. Instead, start a new topic with a new subject line.

General pointers for online discussions

Make your message easy to read. A large block of text with no breaks for several lines is difficult to read on a screen. Write in brief paragraphs, some of which may be only one sentence. If your message involves a few details, outline them with bullet points or numbers. Edit your message to be as succinct as possible. If your message is not easy to read and digest, the recipient will skip over it and move on to someone else's posting.

Provide links where relevant. When answering questions, if you mention books, articles or other resources, take a moment to copy and paste the links for readers' convenience.

Be careful with humor. In face-to-face conversation, you can communicate humorous intent via facial expression, body language, and voice tones. Not so in online communications. Thus, a comment that you make in jest may be misinterpreted as mean or sarcastic. Sticking a smiley face at the end doesn't necessarily help. Nothing wrong with a little levity, but use it sparingly. Poking fun at yourself is much less risky than joking about someone else or about their comments.

Participate. Asking and answering questions results in more than simple exchange of information. It builds community and connection with colleagues. Participate in discussions when you have something substantive to say. If you get an occasional negative comment in reply, remember that it reveals more about the other person than about you.

Popular resources for online discussions

  • Your professional associations - National, regional and local
  • Yahoo groups - search by topic or by professional affiliation (counselors, social workers, therapists, etc.) A very active yahoo group is "Clinicians Exchange"
  • Linkedin - Search under Interests/Groups. Join us at TPI's Linkedin group.