Just as moderators and scripts do, boundaries regarding online communication provide a frame for participants to feel safe and heard. It is important that all participants are aware of the foreseen duration of the online conversation and of the specific topic of the conversation.
Limited duration of, for instance, an hour for an online conversation makes it acceptable for participants to focus on the ongoing conversation only and not multitask at the same time. Large planned timeframes for communication online will, in turn, provoke asynchronous communication: participants will decide when to communicate as a result of external causes rather than according to the needs of the conversation. Asynchronous communication makes us feel less heard because the other participants clearly have other priorities, and less safe because we do not know when to expect a reply if a reply is to occur at all.
Limited duration of a conversation makes it easier to sustain online communication for another reason too: we live in times of instant gratification. While in asynchronous communication our gratification most probably will be delayed, in a focused conversation replies are immediate.
Like boundaries in the duration, a specific topic for the online conversation will make it more likely that participants will adhere to the internal logic of the conversation rather than to offload external factors onto the conversation.
Both boundaries in the duration and boundaries for the topic of online communication will help participants to focus on each other during the online conversation and listen to the other participants rather than to impose their need for self-promotion upon others. And listening to others, as we have seen, is the hallmark of a warm style of communication that is to eventually lead to trust.
In our experience, the topic of online communication should not suggest that participants have a problem or face a challenge. People are hesitant to commit time online to talk about obstacles in their lives. The reason provided most often by people to not join an online conversation about a problem is that they have no problems. And if they in the future would encounter a problem they’d rather call on real-life friends. It seems that admitting to a problem equals admitting to failure to achieve the best possible position in society for ourselves and for our offspring.
What does work when defining a concrete topic for an online communication session is to frame it as a step towards achieving a better position in society, not because the current position is bad but because the participants are ready for the next step. If we do not want to frame the session topic this bluntly, we might also package it as part of a social gathering or as a means to empower others.