I try not to get into debates on the internet. Because I make my living online I need it to be as safe a place as possible. Not a day passes without someone saying something cruel on my Youtube Channel so I try hard to keep the other corners of my internet safe. Most of the time this means me biting my tongue, even when it comes to things I am *really* passionate about.
Sometimes it’s too hard though, just the other day on my Facebook page I was urging people to vote in a progressive government in the UK election this week and couldn’t help rebutting someone who shared an alternative opinion. I was feeling so much in that moment, all the weight of the people who are going hungry, dying because of the stripping away of health services, the rising poverty. Since that interaction I’ve been thinking about how our interactions online must reflect how we live in real life. I mean for most of us, most of the time, they do, right? We use the internet to connect with friends, to laugh and feel joy, to take action on things we care about.
But when a polarising topic comes up it seems all of our values disappear.
And at the moment the polarising topics are in abundance. We have the British election, a huge vaccine debate here in NZ, intense opinions on the terrorist attacks. Over the last week alone I have seen my friends in interactions on all of these topics that have bought out intensely disconnecting behaviour, engagement that pushes each other further and further away.
So a few days ago I met up with my friend Rosalie. Rosalie is trained in Non Violent Communication and works in a community organisation delivering programmes that helps families live without violence. Her business is restoring relationships and helping people keep their connections alive. I wanted to know how she manages polarising debate on social media. I wanted a vision of Non Violent Communication meets Facebook.
Firstly, Rosalie said…
if you do ANYTHING different let it be this:
Do two minutes of deep breathing.
When someone says something COMPLETELY IDIOTIC (lol) on Facebook the first thing you must do is turn your back to your laptop and take a deep breath. It’s legit, my friends, take a big breath in, fill your belly, your lungs, right to the top of your chest, hold it in and breath out as though through a straw. For good measure, imagine you are floating on the ocean.
(For even better measure, imagine you are floating in the ocean and the person who said something stupid on Facebook is swimming towards you with cocktails and chocolate and is singing a song- they have a surprisingly nice voice!!- with lyrics that go like “I think you are truly great and I’m so sorry that I’m such an idiot on Facebook”)
People being cruel or idiotic on Facebook can actually trigger our bodies fight or flight reaction – a biological response that bypasses our the parts of the brain where empathy and reasoning is centred. This flush of anger can set in motion a response that aims to maim someone. Causing emotional pain rather than physical doesn’t make it any better.
If we take just two minutes to breathe and consider that the person receiving your comment is a human being, possibly with a mum in hospital and a child being bullied by her best friend, and job cuts at work and a dog that just did a vomit on the rug, we are SO much more likely to flick the switch on our Kindness function. (All humans have that function, some have just forgotten where the switch is, or the knobs fallen off.)
Last night I watched a bit of David Attenborough’s LIFE on Netflix with my daughters. We watched a bug, the Stalk Eyed Fly, blow bubbles of air into its eyeballs until they were sticking way out on stalks on either side of it’s head, getting a good look around.
I’m going to be like the Stalk Eyed Fly. Taking those big, deep breaths in order to get a better perspective.
Next, we spoke about activating the empathy centres in our brain. We do this by taking a minute to understand the needs the other person is trying to get met.
Identify their needs
A few years ago my family went through a heart wrenching Non Violent Communication process. The main thing I took from it was that even these people, the people we were in conflict with, were simply trying to get their needs met. We felt deeply betrayed by what they had done, and still now can’t fathom their actions, but I can understand why they did it. I can see that they were trying to meet a need that they had – and every human need is valid. Understanding this is our first step towards empathy.
It can be really helpful to take a few moments to consider what of their basic needs the person on social media is trying to get met. A good starting place for our basic needs is provded by the Centre for Non Violent Communication:
Physical Well Being
The person arguing against raised taxes is feeling their need for autonomy is undermined. The person arguing about vaccines is trying to meet their child’s needs to stay healthy or even alive.
Thinking this through can really help us move into a more empathetic conversation.
Make observations rather than judgements
Beginning a conversation with an observational statement without our own values placed on it allows room for engagement.
“You told me to shut up” (an observation)
“You told me to shut up, wtf, that’s bullying!” (evaluation)
“You shared a post that claims that Islam should be banned” (observation)
“You shared a racist post that claims that Islam should be banned” (evaluation)
Share your feelings
We need to be able to be more free with our feelings, to be vulnerable and honest. This helps the conversation open up into connection but it also can remind them that YOU are human too! I read an article by a marriage counsellor lately that said that the word “OUCH” can help keep a marriage on the right tracks (or some grand claim like that) because instead of revving back at your partner when they say something hurtful, you take a second to tell them that that really hurt you, even though you kinda wanna just barge in and get them back with something more hurtful – which obviously then gets you on a ferris wheel of hurtful comments. Stating our feelings can do the same thing on social media.
“You told me I was stupid and it made me feel angry.”
“You shared a post that claims that Islam should be banned. I felt sad because my best friend is Muslim and she walks my children home from school every afternoon and gives them juice and biscuits while they wait for me to get back from work.”
Share your needs
It is, as mentioned above, your own basic human needs that are at the root of the feeling. So share that too. This adds to the picture you are giving the other person. It adds the context needed for that conversation, it gives them more of you and keep connection firing.
“You told me I was stupid and it made me feel angry. I need to be able to share my opinions on my page without being insulted.”
“You shared a post that claims that Islam should be banned. I felt scared because my best friend is Muslim and she walks my children home from school every afternoon and gives them juice and biscuits while they wait for me to get back from work. I need everyone in my community to be safe.”
Make a clear and do-able request
Making requests rather than demands recognises that we are all free and autonomous humans, simply with the job of being kind to each other. It gives you a chance to get your needs met and gives them an example of how to get their needs met. This is a slowly, slowly thing on Facebook, but, hey, they might read or do this one thing and even that would be a step towards progress in someway!
“You told me I was stupid and it made me feel angry. I need to be able to share my opinions on my page without being insulted. Would you consider engaging in this conversation without insults?”
“You shared a post that claims that Islam should be banned. I felt scared because my best friend is Muslim and she walks my children home from school every afternoon and gives them juice and biscuits while they wait for me to get back from work. I need everyone in my community to be safe. Would you consider reading her article about the attacks?”
I notice on Facebook threads that people just try and swoop in with one excellent paragraph. We try and squeeze into that paragraph all our braininess and wit and then we swoop away. We come back, of course, because *PING* someone replied to your comment with all of THEIR BRAININESS AND WIT! How very dare they! And we. just.can’t.resist. letting our righteousness shine again.
But the thing is, these huge remarks back and forth are not a conversation! Conversations go: question, answer, comment, comment, question, answer. They are engaged and open. They often build a context to work within. Not fired off in a burst of anger.
To help me see this in action I stalked Rosalie on a thread with a very, very, very angry person. Someone who had a deep unmet need and was taking it out on everyone who had a different opinion. I watched her gently asking questions, being polite, asking someone to read something. It looked SO different to normal Facebook debates.
In a way, it mimicked real life conversation. Gentle questioning and observations and feelings. The best conversations hardly ever look like even the above NVC examples, they are usually spread out with gentle back and forthing. And lots of thank yous. “Thanks for sharing your feelings about that.”
We need this kind of conversation on social media.
Before we left Rosalie told me the story of how First Nations people view emotional well being and community. A Yankton Sioux elder, Phil Lane Sr., was talking to a large gathering of tribal people. He took a stick and drew a circle in the dirt. “Our people used the circle to explain many things,” he said. “For instance, the circle represents the hoop of the people. All of the people are a part. No one is excluded. The hurt of one is the hurt of all. The honour of one is the honour of all.”
Even though the internet feels like a different world sometimes, it IS our world and the people we interact with on there are our community.
When we hurt each other on social media, in order to make an excellent point, we break the hoop and we all suffer. Every time we put connection at the heart of our interactions we keep the hoop whole and we honour our community, and ourselves.
PS – Thank you for reading this! I’ve had such an urge to write it after failing so hard earlier in the week. If you find my blog helpful, please do consider supporting my work on Patreon through this link!
PPPS – It is Kindness Week over on my Youtube Channel – see our first bit of kindness in my latest video: