12 Ways to Disagree Online Without Being a Jerk

Relax PeopleThe 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.

If you’d like an example of what I think it means to disagree strongly without being a jerk, you may want to check out, I Am a Small Church Pastor and I’m Calling Out the Church Leadership Bullies.

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.

So, if I’ve critiqued something you’ve written, either on my site or in your comments, know this. If I didn’t respect you, I wouldn’t bother.


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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(Relax People sign photo from soukup • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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14 thoughts on “12 Ways to Disagree Online Without Being a Jerk”

  1. 13. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

    A lot of opposing comments are because the commenter leapt to a conclusion, instead of backing up and making certain the blogger really did mean that (or mean to say that). Rather than ask, “Is this what you meant?” the commenters will simply shoot first and ask questions later.

    1. Yes! I’m actually working on a follow-up to this with that as its main point. I had planned to include it, but it’s long enough to stand on its own.

      People can have a stellar track record on a subject for years, but their one misstatement (or blatant misquote) gets picked up, repeated and carries more weight with some people than decades of hard-earned reputation. Drives me nuts.

      You and I are tracking along the same lines again, K.W. (Not sure if that’s more worrisome for you or for me).

  2. You go Karl!!! I always love when people get stupid when the disagree or think you’re just a loser. Love’em and serve God, it’s some times fun for me, 🙂 maybe it shouldn’t be. I just love having the truth on my side. Keep up the Great work! Serving, Paul

  3. Hi, Karl, Wendy here! Thanks for the nice mention. I thought your original blog post was great–I loved the opportunity to piggy-back on it with some thoughts of my own. Again, glad you found it helpful.

    1. Hi, Wendy. Thanks for providing a great example of the kind of healthy give-and-take we can have online. Your post added some important points to the discussion. That’s what this online conversation should be all about – especially in the body of Christ.

  4. I ESPECIALLY agree with #1. It is unbelievable how many people feel compelled to comment on articles/posts I share on FB without even bothering to thoroughly read them.

  5. Thank you for all these reminders. One possible different approach to the hate speech, etc., rather than walking away — and folks have to gauge their own ‘stomach’ for it — in the art of peacemaking, as if you were talking face-to-face, is to engage the behavior first, leaving it to the ‘trolls’, etc., how to respond — i.e,, “My brother, we can disagree, but it really is not okay in the kingdom to call me names.” . . . “I find myself surprised by your anger, given that we’ve never met” . . . “I am happy to discuss and debate these issues with you, but we have to first agree not to use words about each other like . . . ” “I assume that you love your family, your community, your country. Will you give me the same benefit of the doubt.” I have actually experienced changed dialogue (not always but more than you might think in this manner. Also, I do post to folks with comments explaining my problem with their position on the theory that I am responsible for what I say and the Holy Spirit moves in ways I can never imagine in the heart of another — that change happens through encounter with a different way of seeing/hearing the world — and if someone only hears their own point of view mirrored back, how can change ever occur? It is definitely not easy, but if peacemaking is part of our call, it is the difficult but necessary work of engagement or, if you will, seed planting. Thanks and peace, Beth

    1. You must have a special gift for it, Beth. And I mean that, sincerely. I’ve only found such peacemaking efforts to work when people are face-to-face or when I have a prior relationship with them. But I’ve never known that to work online with someone I don’t know already. God bless you for your patience and your peacemaking gift.

      1. Karl, thanks for that. I can attest to two examples of dramatic change and many others of slowing down things to a calmer plain – it requires patience, persistence, and a very thick skin: i have worked with CPT (a Christian non-violence group) in Iraq. The first example involved a colleague who received a very angry e-mail from a man in the US to a post she had written. Through a series of conflict-filled e-mails, my colleague learned that the man’s brother (a soldier) had been killed in Afghanistan. By the time they ended their communications, the man blessed CPT’s work and called my colleague his friend. That was a situation that involved discerning the hurt behind the anger, which he did not explain initially, but did when my colleague named the pain she sensed. The second involved me directly when a fellow Presbyterian, responding to a public article about events involving our group in Iraq by calling us dupes (one of the nicest things he said). Since he identified himself as a Presbyterian elder, I engaged him as a fellow Presbyterian, responding to his criticisms while ignoring the name calling except to name what was happening and reminding him that as siblings in Christ, we had an obligation to meet each other in a more peaceful way. It took a few more e-mails after that (I took our conversation out of the public arena after the first couple of comment exchanges, which helped, I think), but the tone of the conversation changed dramatically and he finally apologized for his hurtful words. More common is simply experiencing the tone calm down when I refuse to respond in kind. It is very difficult (I can’t always do it myself, which is when I choose to remain silent). My thinking is always this: if they can see me as a fellow human being open to listening to them, perhaps they can create even a little space to listen to me. I usually won’t know what worked or what didn’t – most days I’m glad to leave that part to the Holy Spirit. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts on this navigation of difficult waters and for taking the time to respond. May God fill your calling to overflowing with the peace and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Beth

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  7. I will be placing this post in my file and share it when necessary. Lately the nastiness is calm. Or maybe I am ignoring it without realizing it. Great guidelines.

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