Engaging in difficult conversations online about politics and other hot-button issues often spiral quickly into conflict, leaving us feeling misunderstood, angry, and sometimes even ashamed of our own behavior. We spoke to Harvard Law School lecturer Sheila Heen—coauthor of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking, 2014) and Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin, 2010)—about how to look beyond the controversy and condemnation, and form deeper connections, both online and offline.
How to have difficult conversations that respect everyone involved
Negotiation Briefings: Many of us who are active on social media— Twitter, Facebook, etc.—have gotten into heated arguments that escalated into insults, mockery, and other types of behavior that we rarely engage in when arguing in real life. Why do conflict and incivility seem to be so much more common online?
Sheila Heen: There are a few reasons why we shy away from conflict in the real world. First, we don’t want to harm our relationships with the real people in our lives. Second, we’re worried about their reaction in the moment—that they’ll get angry, cry, and so on. Third, because we have a relationship with ourselves, we worry about how we’re behaving. Online, all these costs feel somewhat removed or at least mitigated, whether because we’re arguing with a stranger or, if we’re talking to people we know, because we’re not faced with their reaction in person.
To make matters worse, online forums are usually public. Any time you have an audience, your identity—“Am I a good or bad person? Am I the problem, or am I the person who speaks truth to power?”—is on the line, which is why people are more reactive. Suddenly it feels as if “everyone on this forum views me as what’s wrong with this country.” In a real-life relationship, we may disagree on an issue that feels really important, but it’s easier to remember that there are good things about each other, and we have the opportunity to change the topic and salvage the dinner. Online, people become two-dimensional caricatures of actual human beings, and we forget there is a real person behind that online handle.
NB: It’s not that hard to step away from difficult conversations with online strangers. What should you do when you get into an online disagreement with someone you know in real life?
SH: Any form of online discussion— emails, texts, private messages—is not dialogue; it is serial monologue. Once a conflict is escalating in serial monologue, it’s really hard to solve it in that format because we’re each explaining why we’re right. You need to either pick up the phone or, more ideally, have these difficult conversations in person. Shift your purpose from having the other person finally see that you’re right to understanding why you see things so differently. Exploring why you see things differently means you each better understand the other—and feel understood—which helps protect the relationship even if you continue to strongly disagree.
NB: Many of us are so set in our political opinions these days that we refuse to listen to the other side, especially online. For issues that people view as having a moral dimension, such as abortion or family separations at the U.S.–Mexico border, is there still room for discussion?
SH: Sure, if the purpose of the difficult conversations is to better understand why you both think what you think or feel what you feel. But if the purpose is to change their mind or prove to them that they’re being immoral, that’s unlikely to happen, partly because of what we believe the conversation is about—for example, that separating children from their families and traumatizing them is deeply problematic.
We’re pretty sure we’re right about that, and we probably are right about that, but that’s not what the other person thinks this issue is about. The other person believes what’s important about this issue is that we need a meaningful way to manage our borders and that there are a lot of real costs of not doing that. And they’re pretty sure they’re right about that, and they probably are.
So the conversation doesn’t go anywhere because we’re talking past each other, each insisting that we’re right about our own topic alone. If we shift our purpose to understanding what we each think the conversation is about and why we see things differently, we at least land in a better place. It helps to be open to their perspective, which can mean learning out loud: “Oh, that’s interesting. That’s something I hadn’t thought about.” Then the other person is more likely to reciprocate by being open themselves.
People don’t change their minds about deeply held beliefs quickly. Sometimes we assume that the conversation didn’t have any impact. But if we both walk away thinking about at least a couple of new things, then that actually is progress.
Have you had difficult conversations with online counterparts? How did things turn out?