How to disagree respectfully online

August 28th, 2020

Sometimes a friend or relative will share opinions online that you don’t care for. Maybe it’s about ‘big stuff’ like politics, the environment, or COVID-19, or ‘small stuff’ like what to do for your family Christmas. Let’s say you care about this person and value your relationship with them. How do you disagree without making things worse?

Unfortunately, arguments can blow up much faster online than they would face to face. But if we handle it well, a respectful argument can help us to understand each other better. It’s not healthy or realistic to expect to live in an echo chamber where everyone agrees with us all the time.

So, what can parents tell their teens about coping with disagreements online?

  1. Stay calm

Don’t fire off a furious comment in the heat of the moment. Take a step back, and do something that helps you chill out, like exercise or a favourite hobby.

  1. Think before you post

Before you speak up, ask yourself:

  • What is the other person going through, that might explain this behaviour?
  • What do you want the other person to do differently?
  • What do you want to get out of this argument? (If the answer is ‘I want to win!’ or ‘I want to get even!’, that’s not a good sign. The other person will notice, and things could end badly.)
  • Realistically, how likely is it that the other person will listen to you? Do the two of you get on well most of the time? Do you usually care about each other’s opinions?

And think about who else is watching. A public fight could stay online forever, so in most cases it’s better to chat in private.

  1. Have realistic expectations

When was the last time you changed your mind because someone yelled at you on social media? For many people, the answer is ‘never’!

It’s natural for people to become defensive when they are challenged, especially if the topic under discussion is important to them and their friends. It’s even common for people to reject new information, if it doesn’t fit with what they believe to be ‘true’ and ‘socially acceptable’. Grappling with new facts and ideas is hard work – it can force us to admit that we got things wrong in the past, or that we don’t understand everything. No one enjoys that!

So, if you’re arguing with someone about a topic that’s close to their heart, recognise that they probably won’t change their views overnight. But you might be able to negotiate a way forward.

  1. Disagree respectfully

DO:

  • Approach the other person privately, in most cases
  • Ask if they’re open to talking to you
  • Keep your tone friendly, or at least polite
  • Make clear that you enjoy talking with them, and that you want to understand where they are coming from
  • Ask them questions about what they believe
  • Check where they are getting their information from
  • Listen to them
  • Repeat their main points in your own words, to show you’re paying attention
  • Empathise with how they are feeling
  • Explain why you disagree, and where you are coming from
  • Tell relatable stories to make your point
  • Ask questions that invite them to think further, like ‘Have you considered [possibility]?’ or ‘What about [concern]?’
  • Acknowledge any points you do agree on.

DON’T:

  • Be sarcastic or patronising
  • Embarrass, insult, or threaten them
  • Dismiss their argument out of hand – ‘You’re totally wrong!’
  • Attack their whole world view – ‘You always believe crazy nonsense!’
  • Use emotive language – ‘If you think that, you must be a monster!’
  • Give ultimatums – ‘Agree with me, or I’m never speaking to you again!’
  • Use words or catchphrases you know the other person hates
  • Start every reply with ‘But…’
  • Use offensive emojis
  • Get distracted by other topics.
  1. Know when to wrap things up

If you’ve both had your say, and you’ve managed to keep things respectful, that’s a good start. You don’t have to reach an agreement today. You might say something like ‘It’s been good talking, and I think I understand better where you’re coming from. Let’s get back to this another time’.

On the other hand, if the other person is threatening you, attacking you personally, calling you names or giving ultimatums, it’s time to get out. You don’t have to have the last word – just walk away.

  1. Learn more

Read these great tips for teens on dealing with arguments and conflicts.

And check out some thought-provoking posts about keeping online arguments civil during stressful times and arguing with a conspiracy theorist.