Arguments are as inevitable as rain. Whether at work or at home, with family and friends or with colleagues, you will likely find yourself embroiled in a disagreement with someone at some point. People work out their own best way of handling arguments in real life, but the anonymity and distance that an online forum provides can be an excuse for people to treat others with a callousness they would never show in person.
Dealing with online conflict involves learning a few things about a new mode of communication.
Acknowledge Your Opposition
No matter how certain you are that you’re right, the other party must have some reason for thinking or behaving otherwise. Read what the other person is saying rather than considering their words a brief pause during which you can concoct your scathing reply or an opening for a withering rebuke. Developing some empathy for the counterpoint to your point is key to understanding how best to persuade another to your way of thinking.
For example, you’ve read a post from someone who dislikes the latest changes to a favorite online game. You think the changes are wonderful and can’t imagine how anyone could be opposed to them. Instead of lambasting the individual who doesn’t care for the changes as a “dumb noob,” try to discover why he has a gripe with them. He might simply have misunderstood the changes or has spotted something about them that you hadn’t yet considered.
Find out why your opponent believes as he does about the issue. You may even find that you have no real disagreement at all, simply a different way of expressing the same point.
Keep Your Cool
Once you start typing in capital letters followed by piles of exclamation points, you’ve already halfway lost. No one likes to hear shouting (or read its textual equivalent); your avenues of persuasion will be roadblocked before you even get to explore them.
Empathy will again serve you well. Imagine how affronted you would feel if someone were to treat you shabbily. You would likely close yourself up against a further onslaught. So will the other party if you treat him to a tirade or slap him with a cold, blunt response that tells him nothing.
Message boards always have new visitors. Neophytes ask questions that old hands have had to read for years. The innocent who comes along and asks a question will often find himself on the receiving end of veterans’ scorn, and they aren’t shy about showing it. “Ugh, didn’t we see this same question three months ago? Learn to search,” they reply–and that’s if they’re feeling generous.
If you recognize yourself as one of these wise, but crotchety forum vets, consider taking a gentler approach. Tell him how to use the search feature instead of slamming him for failing to read a thread that was born, lived, and died long before he entered the forums. You’ll encourage a potentially valuable member of the community instead of breeding a disgruntled troll who now turns a blind eye to everything you write.
While no one expects every online encounter to be full of rainbows and joy, courtesy never hurts. How you say things is as important as what you say if you want anyone reading you to remain receptive to your message. That applies to the greenhorn as much as to the longtime member.
Malice versus Incompetence
Have you heard the saying, “Never attribute to malice what could be adequately explained by incompetence?” It’s been attributed loosely to science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, but its exact origins are unclear. Regardless of who wrote it first, it remains especially true for online communication. What you read as a tactless response may be intended by its author as refreshing honesty. A pejorative post may have started as mild, even affectionate sarcasm.
Posts and emails are more negatively perceived than face-to-face communications due to a poverty of contextual cues in text, according to research from Syracuse University’s Dr. Kristin Byron. Sardonic comments that a smile would otherwise soften may read like a stony-faced judgement when read in a post. Misunderstandings become even more common between genders or across wide gaps in age or experience.
Humans are social creatures; in the absence of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, only words are left to express a thought in posts and emails. People who are less adept with textual communication or who have an aversion to “smileys” to connote a lighthearted tone may seem forbiddingly serious or even off-putting. Our eyes have evolved to handle low light levels, but our brains haven’t yet caught up to technology that’s only decades old; we tend to perceive low levels of emotional warmth as coldness even when it isn’t intended.
Try to glean the meaning of a post while ignoring the impulse of your socially sensitive brain to assume that anything said without a smile must be negative. Chances are the other person doesn’t intend to sound disdainful or aggressive. When a poster is intentionally rude, failing to take the proffered bait and politely responding to a post’s substance instead of its style is an excellent way to de-tusk a forum troll.
What If You’re Wrong?
Sometimes you find in the course of a discussion that you were mistaken. Own up to it with grace and humor; your erstwhile opponent will forgive almost any argument if you retreat from battle honorably. Next time you’ll undoubtedly check your facts more closely before tilting your lance at a new forum dispute, and in the meantime you’ve learned something new. While you may technically have “lost,” you’ve gained new knowledge and earned credibility as a worthy opponent.
While it isn’t quite as satisfying as being right all along, it still counts as a win-win situation for you and your opposition.
Sources: Syracuse University Academy of Management Review, Carrying Too Heavy a Load?, Kristin Byron
Society for Design and Process Science, , The Potential for Miscommunication Using Email as a Source of Communication, Vicki P. Rainey