November 20, 2015


Comic: XKCD

A hundred years ago, people’s social networks consisted mainly of the those they saw in person on a regular basis. This often resulted in tight-knit communities with a homogeneous set of values. Now, the internet has exploded the size of our networks. We can chat with far-off family, stay in touch with old friends, and easily connect with strangers. A side effect is that we’re also much more likely to come into contact with people whose opinions differ drastically from our own. In theory, this should give us a tremendous opportunity to learn from each other and to affect one another’s viewpoints. In practice though, the exact opposite often occurs: the conversations we have push people with differing opinions even farther apart.

Just as in the comic above, we derive a sick pleasure from proving others wrong, especially from behind the veneer of internet anonymity. Often, our addiction to winning an argument undermines our ability to sow the seeds that truly change hearts and minds. Instead of listening to understand, we listen only to find flaws. Especially in a public forum, like many online venues, the adversarial nature of this type of conversation breeds an environment of defensiveness, causing each side to cling even more firmly to their views (a psychological phenomenon known as “attitude polarization”).

To integrate new knowledge and achieve personal growth, most people need safety, support, and room to breathe—not insults and threats from an online lynch mob. Here are seven gentle techniques to help you skip the internet flamewar and, instead, compassionately share your perspective with another human being.

  1. Be a living example: The simplest way to inspire others to consider the merit of your opinions is to live out your ideals happily, healthily, and unapologetically—no deep conversation required. If how you’re living is making your existence markedly more joyful, purposeful, or abundant than average then others will take notice.

  2. Have an intimate conversation: If you feel compelled to share your opinions in the form of a conversation, public discussions generally do not foster openness. People are more likely to hold firm to their original opinion after committing to it in front of a large group. Also, when there are many participants, people tend to take sides. This can foster an adversarial “us versus them” mentality and further polarize attitudes. Cut down on the drama by having a one-on-one or small group conversation in a setting where all parties are comfortable and relaxed.

  3. Listen to understand: Even if you disagree with someone, demonstrating you fully understand their opinion goes a long way. You don’t need to pretend to agree with them, but hear them out, ask questions, and paraphrase what they tell you. Not only will this show respect (see below), it will give you the information you need to explain your opinion within their frame of reference. The person to inspire a Christian to consider embracing gay rights is not the atheist who dismisses the Bible as fantasy; it’s the person (of any religious or nonreligious background) who meets the Christian in her universe and gently encourages her to consider that Jesus did not speak out even once against homesexuality. (If you’re interested in learning more about speaking compassionately with Christians about homosexuality, the bookHearts and Minds by Darren Main is wonderful.)

  4. Show respect: Avoid name-calling, labeling, and stereotyping. This is a simple concept: nobody is open to the opinions of someone who has called them a stupid, ignorant jerk. We have strong defense mechanisms against people who disrespect us. It may feel good to call someone a misogynist in response to sexist comments, but nearly no one self-identifies as such, so this label will trigger defensiveness and slam the door on a meaningful conversation.

  5. Plant a seed: People rarely have epiphanies that instantaneously transform their opinions. Instead of aiming to change someone’s mind over the course of a single conversation, aim simply to plant a seed that may take several days, months, or years to grow. Share a thought-provoking quote the topic of controversy. Tell a memorable anecdote. Get vulnerable and talk about how an issue affects you personally. Then, step away from the topic to give the person a chance to reflect, process, and adapt at their own pace.

  6. Avoid arguing: The more opportunities people have to rationalize their opinions aloud the more committed they become to them. Calm, thoughtful discussion can be productive, but an emotionally-charged argument nearly always has the opposite effect as you want it to.

  7. Be gracious: After you’ve planted a seed, don’t cling to the topic. Move on. Accept that you may never get validation that you were right or acknowledgement that you enlightened someone. Change is challenging, awkward, and humbling for people—you only make all that harder by gloating. If you notice a change of heart, simply show support without making a big deal about it.