The internet is a great place for debate. I love throwing ideas out there, stirring up interest and reading other passionate opinions.
But the anonymity of the internet also has a way of turning mean people loose. And that stifles, sometimes kills, the opportunity for healthy, inspiring conversation. A lot of good people have stopped writing online altogether because they don’t want the nastiness any more. I don’t blame them.
The worst place for this is usually in the comment section of blogs. Unfortunately, Christian sites – even church leadership sites – are no exception to this.
I refuse to be influenced by the nastiness. It won’t sucker me in or bully me away. I will continue to engage in the debate, stir up alternative views and dialog honestly and openly.
I’ve learned that it is possible to disagree with someone online and not be a jerk about it. So if you, like me, want to engage in lively discussion, even disagreements online, while keeping the tone civil, try these twelve steps as a guide.
1. Read the entire post
Don’t just skim the title and subheadings. OK, you can skim, read or not read anything you want, of course. It’s up to you. But, if you plan to comment on it, read the whole thing first!
It’s astonishing how many people comment on a post, either on my site or another site, when they obviously haven’t read the whole post.
Yes, we want to hear from you. But please know what you’re commenting on, first. You may agree more than you think you do.
2. Disagree with what the author actually wrote
Everyone has the right for their words to stand on their own. But I’ve often seen a commenter get mad at a blogger for something they didn’t even write!
For example, Tim Challies wrote a terrific post earlier this week entitled, I Love a Church That Sings Badly. His premise was that a church where everyone knows all the lyrics and melodies can sometimes be an indication that there aren’t a lot of seekers or new believers in the crowd. But a church where a lot of people don’t know the songs can be a sign of an outward-reaching church.
I agreed which much of what he wrote. Then I read some comments. Most were passionate and thoughtful. But some of them – oh my! Talk about missing the point entirely!
“How does someone’s musical ability define their spiritual maturity?” one person asked, going on to argue that coming to Jesus doesn’t make someone a great singer. Of course it doesn’t. She and others were arguing against a point no one would dream of making. Wisely, the author replied to the thoughtful comments, but not to the others. (See points 7-10 to find out why not.)
As an example of how to do this well, Wendy Dackson wrote a post entitled In Sickness and In Health, on LayAnglicana.org a few months ago. Her post was a response to my article, Unhealthy Churches Should Not Act Like Healthy Churches – Until They Are. Wendy felt I’d missed a few things, so she wrote to address those issues. She did it respectfully, so I thanked her in her comment section for engaging in lively, civil debate.
Most bloggers don’t have a problem with disagreements. When it’s done the way Wendy did it, we welcome it. The starting point for that respect is to address the issue the blogger actually wrote about, not something that’s just rattling around in your own head.
3. Address the issue without attacking the person
This should be so obvious. But it isn’t for some people. I saw a hideous example of this on Facebook just yesterday.
When you attack the person by calling them names, etc., it opens the door for all kinds of bad results.
- First, your words can hurt a person deeply, sometimes permanently.
- Second, you’ll bring any possibility for further civil conversation to a close. The insulted person will either sling mud back at you or leave the debate – and maybe the forum and/or relationship – for good. Others who haven’t been insulted will leave too, either from fear of being attacked themselves or because they don’t want to read the nastiness.
- Third, you’ll look like a jerk and, by extension, hurt your own argument. Insults are more likely to push undecided people away from your side, not towards it. No one wins.
4. Don’t assume motives
Let the person who wrote the piece tell you what their motives are. Only they and God know, anyway. (Sometimes only God really knows.)
5. If you can’t say something nice…
Before I decide to comment on a blog post or status I disagree with, I read it thoroughly to find something I agree on.
No, I don’t offer false praise. People can see through that. But there’s always something to agree with that allows me to start my comments by writing, “I love what you said about…” or “I appreciate what you’re trying to say here…”
If there’s nothing – literally not one thing – to agree on, we have to ask “why bother to comment at all?” If the blogger has literally gotten nothing right, they and their readers are probably not persuadable, so why waste precious time and energy on them? Click to the next post.
6. Use the 20-to-1, positive-to-negative rule
There’s so much bad stuff on the internet that a blogger could spend all their time writing on things they disagree with. And some do just that.
I don’t want to wallow in negatives. So I have committed to writing at least 20 positive posts, comments, tweets and replies for every disagreement.
I want to be known for the things I agree with far more than the things I’m against.
7. Engage with commenters who disagree with you
Blogs are supposed to have a conversational aspect to them. If you’re a blogger, but are so thin-skinned that you can’t bear to read negative comments, remove the comment section entirely. Better yet, find something else to do with your time other than blogging.
But if you have a comment section, the give-and-take is why you have it. And it’s a big reason to be blogging in the first place.
So bloggers, engage with your commenters. And not just with those who agree with you. “Thanks for the compliment” gets old, fast. Remember, it is possible to…
8. Learn from commenters who disagree with you
Respond to valid criticism. Agreeably. Learn to hear when they’re right and you’re wrong. (It will happen.)
I’ve made edits to a couple of my posts because readers pointed out issues I hadn’t seen. Check out, Jesus and Crowds – An Unhappy Marriage. I added an update to it when an alert reader caught an error.
People who point out my faults in a loving way make me a better communicator. I’m grateful for them.
On the other hand…
9. Don’t feed the trolls
Some people troll the internet looking for posts that make them angry. Others look to stir up other people’s anger just for the sick fun of it. The internet knows this and calls them what they are. Trolls.
Don’t feed the trolls. They want you to lash out in hurt or anger. That’s what they thrive on.
There are two options to starve out the trolls. One is to ignore them. Especially if they’re commenting on someone else’s forum. Just scroll on past. If you take their bait, they’ll suck you in to their game. But they hate being ignored.
The other (and best) option, if you’re the owner of the site, is…
10. Use the Graffiti Rule for offensive comments
If you’re a blogger and someone is commenting on your site in a mean or rude way, use the delete button. Block them entirely, if need be. I’ve done that.
You’re under no obligation to keep offensive comments on your site. In fact, I believe you have an obligation to remove them under the Graffiti Rule.
The Graffiti Rule (sometimes called the Broken Windows theory) is based on the realization that bad behavior attracts more bad behavior. If a city allows graffiti to stay on a wall or building even for a day or two, it will attract more graffiti.
Take a look at comments on blogs that don’t monitor their comment section. It’s an appalling example of the worst of human behavior. Just like graffiti attracts more graffiti, one offensive comment opens the floodgates for others.
Don’t delete a comment just because the writer disagrees with you. That’s thin-skinned, and it makes your site look fake and overly controlled. You want open, honest dialog.
Allowing and engaging in spirited, civil disagreement opens dialog up. Permitting cruel comments shuts it down.
11. Write offline first
I usually write things offline first. This blog post, Facebook comments, even tweets.
And I always write it offline first if I’m passionate, especially if I’m angry about something. Having that extra step between me and the “send” button has saved me from regret more than once.
12. Write it, but don’t send it
When you’re angry or hurt, it’s important to express how you feel. So, by all means, write everything down.
But you don’t have to send it. After you’ve written it offline, let it sit for an hour, a day, a week or more. More often than not, you’ll find that the act of writing it helped you work through it, even if no one ever reads it. When you go back to it later, you’re likely to see the issue more clearly and you’ll know whether to send it or not. Usually, the answer is “not”.
If in doubt, don’t do it. You’ll never regret the angry blog, tweet, comment or email you didn’t send.
Want a 13th point? Check out The 10% Grace Rule: Judging Without Being Judgmental.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Do you have any other ideas about how to disagree online without being a jerk?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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