How to disagree with people online

A handy guide that will keep you arguing for hours.

Credit: Jeremy Mack

If you are active on social media, chances are that you have occasionally disagreed with viewpoints presented by others. Chances are also that you have gotten into a fight with someone after having disagreed with them. Moreover, odds are that some of these fights have escalated into outright conflicts, damaging moods and relationships alike. Online fights are a frequently occurring phenomena, and this post will explore the possibility of turning potential fights into disagreements, rather than the other way around.

It is not uncommon for online fights to occur in cases where both parties actually agree with most of what the other person have said, but disagree with some aspect of the delivery of whatever point they tried to make. It is possible for online fights to start in situations where both parties agree to 95%, but disagree to 5%. What gives?

More often than not, these fights paradoxically happen due to a lack of communication. Someone posts something, you notice that one thing you don’t agree with, and write a comment about it. And there — right there — is where things go wrong.

Communication is a comprehensive concept. No one who says something ever just says something. The act of communicating communicates more than just the words that are used in the act. When you comment on those 5% you don’t agree with, you are also commenting on those other 95%. Whatever words you use in your comment, you are also saying that those other 95% are not worth mentioning. Or, to rephrase: you are communicating that the only thing worth commenting on is that one thing they got wrong.

Obviously, this is not what you intended to communicate. You agree to 95%, after all. But what the other person perceived was an unequivocal message that you disagree 100%, and thus the online fight begins.

There are a few things you can do to avoid getting in to unnecessary online fights. To make it easier to skim this post (and, also, to pinpoint any potential disagreements), they will be presented in list form.

1. Ask yourself if what you have to say contributes to the overall situation. If the other person wrote and shared a brilliant blog post that clearly elucidates a relevant topic of the day, but got something wrong in an off-hand remark about an unrelated topic, then commenting on that remark probably won’t contribute to the overall message the other person wants to convey. Be conscious of your part in spreading the good words they want to share — don’t put a spotlight on that one rough spot by making it the first thing everyone else sees after reading your comment (and the subsequent fight following from it). Consider the possibility that maybe your best course of action is to simply give it a like, or a share.

2. Make an effort to convey that you are in agreement with the other person. State clearly that you agree with what the other person have said, and paraphrase it in your own words to make it crystal clear exactly which parts you agree with. If you can establish that there is agreement between the two of you, and just what you agree about, then there is no reason to fight. You are on the same page, after all.

3. After establishing what you agree with, proceed to state what you disagree with. Be clear, concise and to the point. Focus on the specific part you disagree with, and put emphasis on the fact that your disagreement is limited to just this one part. Make the discussion focus on this part, rather than on other parts (or worse, on the other person).

4. State your reasons for disagreeing as non-confrontationally as possible. Be polite about it. Present your reasoning in a clear, friendly manner, and give the other person time to absorb what you have said. If they have questions, answer them in a similar manner. Focus on mutual understanding rather than winning.

5. Explain the reasoning behind your disagreement with a proper level of background information. If you can tell the other person knows the subject well, then you can safely skip the introductory stuff. If they need additional context, then work out what it is and present it in a concise manner. Provide links if need be, but also explain why these links are relevant. Keep it as simple as it needs to be, but no simpler.

6. Make it easy for the other person to admit they are wrong without losing face. Allow them a way out. If they are convinced of your point of view, then don’t also demand that they have to publicly humiliate themselves in order to admit as much. Allow them to be wrong, and allow for this to be no big deal. Be gracious, and bow out of the situation with as little fuss as possible.

7. Respect the fact that online communication takes time, and that the other person might not have it. Life is messy, and there are always things happening. Kids, jobs, relationships, traffic, presidential tweets — there are always life situations that demand our attention. If someone does not respond to you right away (or with as much effort that you expected), you just have to accept that not everything in the world revolves around online communication. If they do make the effort, thank them for their time.

8. Realize that the steps outlined above take a non-trivial amount of time and effort on your part to implement. Make no mistake. Clearly formulating anything is an act of will and effort. You have to check and double-check that you have understood everything correctly, that you have avoided ambiguity, and that you have phrased your disagreement in such a way that it can be graciously received. These are things that require you to stop, listen and collaborate, and you have to allow these things the required time to occur.

9. Sometimes, the best comment is no comment. If you disagree with something, but are not quite sure why, then it might be for the best not to comment upon it. Mull it over for a bit. Think it through. If you are still thinking about it hours (or days) later, then you have stumbled upon something interesting. Most definitely, it will be something more interesting than an unnecessary internet fight caused by a fast but furious comment. –

[Shameless self-promotion: you can find most of my writings listed here.]