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What to Do When Online Conversation Turns Ugly

Without the benefit of body language, which can help soften or defuse tense conversations, online discussions are ripe for misunderstandings and heated exchanges. How can we make social media a kinder place for the healthy exchange of views?

Here are a few common scenarios and suggested solutions:

Situation: the shutdown. A disgruntled ‘friend’ strongly suggests that you pipe down on a topic that you feel strongly about. They might say something along the lines of: “Get over it”; “Maybe you should ‘unfriend’ me”; or “You’re making people not like you.”

Solution: Women, in particular, are frequently the targets of the play nice’ card. If the issue is important to you, ask yourself: ‘Why does my difference of opinion scare this person? Am I willing to risk alienating myself from some people by voicing my thoughts? Are those individuals really my friends to begin with?’

Quietly unfriending these folks is the best solution. Otherwise, respond with curiosity: “Why do you feel I should ‘unfriend’ you?” “Why do my thoughts on this matter bother you?”

Situation: Contempt. Instead of empathizing, or at least listening to your concerns, a friend or a family member responds in a dismissive way. For example: “How dumb. Maybe you should run for office if you have such strong opinions.”

According to the English Oxford dictionary, contempt is defined as “the feeling that a person is beneath consideration or deserving scorn.”

Solution: Disarm with compassion: “Clearly, I touched a nerve. Would you like to talk about it?” If this person frequently meets your thoughts with disgust, you can respond with: “I don’t allow people to talk to me/treat me that way.” If the toxic behavior continues, say good-bye or put that person at a healthy arm’s-length if you can’t completely dump them from your life. 

Situation: Online confrontation. Your post or comment unleashes the fury of another person in your network. You dig your heels in. Friends jump in to take sides. Trolls show up. And the virtual mudslinging commences.

Solution: Dale Carnegie once said, A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. In other words, when people are on the defensive, it’s impossible to change their opinion, no matter how well you make your point. First, consider if a comment is worth addressing. Trolls bait people by dropping inflammatory comments into a thread. Don’t bite.

If you do respond, take the higher road. Avoid personal attacks and excuse yourself from mean-spirited conversations: “As you’ve decided to make this personal, I’m exiting this conversation before I say something I regret.” Or, “While I disagree, I appreciate hearing a different opinion.” Reinforce positive exchanges by saying, “Thank you for the healthy debate.”

Situation: Cyberbullying. Cyberbullying isn’t only a problem that affects kids. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, nearly 65 per cent of young adults between 18 and 29 have experienced some sort of online harassment. Overall, 40 per cent of adults have been victims of cyberbullying or online stalking.

Solution: Respond to inflammatory remarks or name-calling by instructing the offending party to respectfully move along. If they refuse, block them. Avoid retaliating, which can only escalate the issue. If the person continues to attack you through private messaging, either ignore the message or calmly tell the person to stop contacting you. If the cyberbullying continues, save the messages in case you need to alert law enforcement.

Manage your emotions. You read something on a friend’s page that enrages you. Do you immediately blast off an angry comment or walk away?

Solution: Give yourself a 24-hour cooling off period. This is a form of self-care and a healthy way to manage anger. Work through your anger in a private journal or talk to an empathetic friend. Take a walk, put on some soothing music, or engage in an activity that steadies your heartbeat. By disengaging, you can put the situation in perspective, avoid making a remark you might later regret, and preserve a relationship that you care about.

Freelance writer and communication researcher Christa is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.



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