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Article: How to Have Gentle But Tough Online Conversations

How to Have Gentle But Tough Online Conversations

How to Have Gentle But Tough Online Conversations

Woman on her pone in bedPhoto by Laura Chouette

Social media has been a bright spot during difficult times for me, like during the loneliness and isolation that came after my first baby was born.

And it’s been my teacher. I’ve learned things about racism, privilege, patriarchy, misogyny, and even myself that I don’t think I would have learned without social media.

But social media has been really awful lately.

Traversing it feels like tiptoeing through some kind of chaotic, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but even if you like confrontation (which I don’t), social media still presents some huge personal challenges.

I struggle the most with how to embody my personal values online among friends, family, and sometimes even complete strangers. How do I uphold my values of love, kindness, justice, and truth in a seemingly oppositional situation? And how do I do that with a limited number of characters and emojis?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few things I’ve learned through lots of trial and error. I’d love to continue the conversation with you in the comments!

persona picking the petals off of a flower

Be Empathetic

I recently heard that empathy meant realizing somebody else’s world was just as real as yours. I try really, really hard to remember this when I have conversations online.

However wrong or misguided or self-serving I feel the other person is, their fears are real to them just like mine are real to me.

I’ve learned that when I approach a conversation with empathy, although the other person may not be ultimately swayed from their opinion, it ends up being more of a conversation than an online shouting match.

(Stress makes every conversation harder; here’s our ultimate guide to natural stress relief.)

Ask Questions

You shouldn’t expect quality answers to your questions without really listening or practicing empathy.

Active, empathetic listening is an incredible thing. It disarms anger and can activate compassion in the person you’re engaging with.

I’ve also found that good questions, when they’re built on a foundation of empathetic listening, can be very powerful.

However, I will say that sometimes asking questions ends the conversation.

This is also telling, because people who aren’t willing to engage in a conversation are people who aren’t willing to listen. I generally try to avoid conversations with people who won’t listen.

Woman typing on a laptop

Share Personally 

I once heard that other people can never deny your feelings and your personal experiences.

We all know this isn’t totally true (raise your hand if you’ve ever been told the way you feel is wrong), but it does shed light on how much weight personal stories can hold in tough online conversations.

“This is what happened to me,” or “this is what happened to my loved one” can be far more powerful than “statistically speaking…” or “this is why you’re wrong….”

I don’t usually share specific, personal stories until I’ve already processed and healed from what I experienced. People online haven’t earned the right to my life.

I also often ask some questions first to make sure the person I’m talking to online is willing to listen. It’s a great way to establish boundaries both on the internet and in person.

Woman holding a mans hand while they sit on the couch

Choose Daring Leadership Over Armored Leadership

Brené Brown reminds us that “winning” isn’t about beating somebody in an argument or cowing them into submission; it’s about whole-hearted connection, where both parties can bring their unique voice and experience to the table.

As angry as I get at other people on social media sometimes, I always try to remember that punishing those I disagree with isn’t the goal.

I’m far more interested in seeing fellow humans learn to approach conflict with vulnerability and whole-heartedness because it helps us to recognize our own mistakes and, in turn, enact change on a bigger scale.

Know Your Boundaries

Remember when I mentioned I don’t usually have conversations with people who won’t listen? That’s knowing my boundaries. I don’t owe anybody anything online, and some of the best work I can do is to create clear boundaries to prevent other people from disrespecting or dishonoring me.

Having boundaries doesn’t mean canceling people or writing somebody off because they’re wrong, but it does mean respecting yourself, your needs, and your wellbeing.

In a hierarchical society like ours, which only assigns value to a select few, respecting and valuing yourself is a small, defiant, revolutionary way to push back against a broken system.

(Self-care is another small, defiant way to push back; here’s how to care for yourself according to your zodiac element.)

Person in a library reading a book

Learn, Learn, Learn

Taking time to understand others’ personal histories and cultural history has been such a powerful tool for me in determining why people think and act the way they do. Educating myself is one of the first things I do when I’m in a frustrating situation with someone else.

However, it’s important not to educate yourself at the expense of those who are marginalized; instead, do the research yourself and pay marginalized people for their work by donating, supporting them on Patreon, buying from them, and so on.

(How’s your anti-racism work going? Check in with yourself here.)

Sarah Guerrero
Sarah Guerrero
Sarah Guerrero is a freelance writer and contributor to Slow North. She has a degree in international business from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and writes about sustainable business practices and ethical living.

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