A lot has been happening in the news lately, including political messes and hot topics like “black lives matter,” “straight pride,” “rape culture,” and officers shot in Dallas, to name just a few. All of these topics give rise to intense emotions, a deep desire for justice, and a wide variety of intensely held viewpoints. As a result, you may have been inundated with social media blowing up as these controversies and tragedies have unfolded.
Particularly on Facebook and Twitter, you may be witnessing (or taking part in) heated discussions that dissolve into hateful chaos.
Indeed, many people feel compelled to chime in. And sometimes, that's the right thing to do. As Elie Wiesel, a Nazi camp survivor, said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech: "…I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere."
But how can you chime in without adding to the hate?
Here are some guidelines you can personally use to promote productive conversations and make a lasting positive impact on your community or social circle.
First and foremost, respond rather than react. When you read something upsetting, become mindful of your emotional reaction. Where do you feel it in your body? Use mindfulness-based strategies to restore inner calm before deciding whether to post or comment. (Reduce your stress in general with these everyday habits.)
Approach every thread (including your own) with kindness and respect, rather than slamming it. This shows that you are being thoughtful rather than reactionary, which is likely to invite thoughtfulness rather than flames. For example, avoid expressions like this: “Your views are hypocritical/ misguided/ close-minded/ wrong.” Instead, try responses like this: “Your view is popular, but have you considered these facts/ new research/ social or legal progress/ the latest medical knowledge?”
Reduce your stress by suspending judgment. It’s easy to label other perspectives as uninformed or irrational. It’s tempting to judge others as foolish, short-sighted, or stupid. Moral indignation and self-righteousness can make us feel high and mighty. But the flip side is that it’s distressing to think, “I’m surrounded by idiots!” or “The world is going to hell in a hand basket!” When judgments bubble up in your mind, take note, and then don’t act on them. Instead acknowledge that each person is thinking and expressing exactly as they are meant to. Suspending judgment eliminates the stress of requiring others to see it your way.
Be a butterfly, not a bull in a china shop. When you comment, if you charge in and try to force change, people are likely to feel threatened and become defensive and close-minded. They may even shut out you and your message. Instead, flit about and gently plant seeds that might lead to change. For example, post compassionate, hopeful, or insightful messages such as this or this.
Realize that change happens from the inside of each person, not from the outside. In other words, when people are not internally motivated to change, they will not alter their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, ideas, or beliefs just because you exert outside pressure. So whenever you meet with fierce resistance, shift your focus to being the change you want to see in the world.
State your intentions clearly, with warmth. For example, this: “I’m interested in spreading understanding/empathy/peace.” Or, “If you’d like to know more about this, here’s a link.” NOT “Here’s a better/ the right/ the only sensible way to think about this.”
Do your research. If you’re interested enough to comment or post on an issue, become informed so you can say what you mean and mean what you say.
Be a critical thinker. Seek out reputable, credible sources that are interested in reporting the facts and providing a thoughtful analysis of the complexities and gray areas. Nothing worth arguing about is ever simple or absolute. Question gossipy, catastrophizing, conspiracy theorizing, or one-note people or organizations that promote a narrow agenda or sensationalize an issue. Don’t rely solely on websites like Wikipedia, as anyone can edit entries, which means no guarantee for accuracy or unbiased information.
Invite increased awareness and clarity. After you've done your research and thought it through, post comments and links that are thought-provoking, well-sourced, fact-based, clarifying, and reflect the complexities of an issue. NOT ones that are thought-controlling (THIS IS THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH, PEOPLE!) or reflect a one-sided sense of superiority or condemnation.
Respect diversity and welcome dissent. If someone challenges your post or comment, keep your emotional reactions to yourself (see #1). Take your time, read carefully and thoroughly, and respond when you are calm so that you don’t take the bait to get riled up. Stick to the facts and do more research in order to respond thoughtfully and completely. Remain focused on your goal to illuminate an issue, underscore compassion, promote social progress-- and learn even more yourself (see previous point).
Invite understanding, by granting it first. Acknowledge opposing viewpoints with an open mind and words such as, “I understand what you’re saying.” When others feel heard, they are more likely to listen and then your words will have more impact. Start with, “I can see why you might be worried about that. Let me clarify…” or “Excellent point, and here’s another angle to consider.” NOT: “I have no idea what you’re talking about," or “This makes no sense!”
Refrain from insulting any person or discounting, undermining, or blocking communication. It is counterproductive to announce, “You’re an idiot,” or “This discussion is over.” Instead, simply disagree with opinions, ideas, viewpoints, or stated “facts” by providing sound, reputable evidence for yours, such as, “Actually, according to scientific research, global warming is a proven fact, not an ‘opinion’ or ‘belief.’ Here are some links you might find interesting.”
Don’t demand that others “respect my opinion.” The only way to garner respect for your opinions is to have respectable opinions. In other words, make sure that your opinions are based on straightforward, substantiated facts—not spin, fabrications, or ideology, which tend to be immune to the facts. (Adhering to an ideology is often accompanied by an attitude of “I refuse to change” or “This is for sure the way it is!”) Other ways to gain respect are to be respectful of others’ opinions, curious about differing points of view, and courteous when others comment.
Be humble about what you know. Hedging with “It might be that….” is more likely to inspire open-mindedness in your audience. For some strategies to increase your persuasiveness, read this Washington Post article.
Know when to give up. The more you try to convince someone that you’re right, the more they will likely dig in and stick to their viewpoint. According to a Cornell study, after 4 back-and-forth exchanges, if the other person hasn’t come around by then, they probably won’t.
Understand the limits of logical arguments. When people get emotional, insulting, or irrational, disengage with them. Although it can be tempting to reply, just let it lie. Replying will only fan the flames.
Have integrity. Think it through before posting. Be willing to acknowledge other points of view and edit your thoughts according to new insights or information offered to you.
Be compassionate. When someone is pushing back and promoting the status quo, it is likely that they are either uninformed on the issue, misunderstanding the point, or afraid of what change might look like—or all of the above. Particularly if you believe someone is reflecting ignorance, simple-mindedness, or bigotry, hold onto compassion, and remain humble (see above).
Have realistic expectations. If you are going to post controversial material, you are inviting controversy. Be prepared for the rumble, so that you don’t feel shocked or dismayed by it.
If you adhere to these guidelines, everyone may not end up agreeing with you, but they will still follow you and/or want to be your friend.