Fostering healthy discussion in a conflict-ridden society

As someone who is constantly online and surrounded by discussion, it’s hard not to notice conflict arise between people on a regular basis. 

So many times I have felt my blood pressure rise because someone said something that I strongly disagreed with. So many times I have wanted to react in anger and belittle someone for their apparent ignorance or rudeness. So many times I have felt serious anxiety because I anticipated personal attacks for stating a differing viewpoint. So many times, also, I was scared to say anything, because I might be wrong.

I want to try and change this - not just in myself, but in others too. I believe that we can all communicate with each other respectfully, and even more effectively too, regardless of differing opinions.

Conversations are a two-way dance, however we can never simply control how other people choose to communicate or think. We can instead alter our own communication and mindset, which could subtly influence the civility of a conversation and possibly increase mutual respect and mutual understanding. These are just some ideas which I’ve found so far which I believe could help make our discussions more healthy, more productive, and overall help to reduce the conflict that is already too prevalent in our society today.

Focus on shared core values

Often, arguments will take place between people who have very different values to each other. But there are also times where this is not true. Many arguments seem to occur between people who actually share the same core values, which sadly get lost in the heat of the debate.

To use some commonly debated topics, here are examples of core values to try and observe, which can be asked on opposite sides of each spectrum:

Climate change – Does this person care about the wellbeing of the Earth?

Gender pay gap – Does this person believe that people should be paid equally if they have equal merit/ability?

Vaccinations – Does this person care about the wellbeing of children?

Video game violence – Does this person want there to be less violence in our communities?

Some of those topics may have sparked a feeling in you, I know they do in me – but it’s important to try and put aside that emotion for a minute and legitimately pose those questions in your head, as honestly as you can. If you aren’t sure, you could always openly ask them.

Understanding these shared values allows you to think about the other person’s perspective - we share these values, why are our views on this topic different? What are they thinking about differently to me? With those differences in mind, we can try and address their concerns in the conversation, and it might even lead to some revelations on your own part. Even if it changes neither person’s viewpoints, you could now say that your viewpoint is stronger because you have considered some challenges to it. You can also use it as an opportunity to help them understand your perspective, since you both want the same thing at the core level.

Acknowledging shared values can also remove some of the ego from a conversation, because it helps you realise you might both actually be “on the same side” – you just have different ideas about how to resolve or achieve that core value.

Understand that emotions can quickly cloud logic

But why should I attempt to settle the argument when they are the one who insulted me first? Don’t they deserve to be put down?

We have all felt this way. But I suspect this type of bickering achieves nothing but stress for both parties, and only escalates the situation. No one becomes influenced, or changes their mind on the topic. Someone might go home feeling proud that they “owned” someone online, but really, I think they’d feel much more satisfied if they knew they had managed to help someone see their point of view.

Unfortunately it is all too often that people fall into this “ad hominem” – attacking someone personally instead of attacking their argument, and often it causes a chain reaction of this same behaviour from all parties who feel personally attacked. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples of this in comment threads which are just endless chains of people trying to one-up the other person’s insults.

I saw a perfect example of this the other day. There was an article posted, which was rather sexist against men. Some might have laughed at the silliness of the article, some might have disagreed, and some might have agreed, but the effect of that article on many people was to create this virtual battlefield of “men” versus everyone else – a.k.a. “women”. The first response I saw was a connection of mine bluntly posting about women in return – basically, giving a harsher comeback.

Despite me disagreeing with the original article due to its sexism, I also paid attention to this comment because it was an attack – specifically, on my own gender. I briefly felt anger and mentally prepared my argument against his comment in my head, but then I stopped. I took a step back. I asked myself if I genuinely believed this person was sexist against women – in my experiences with this person, he had always seemed very pleasant and reasonable. I came to another conclusion; I suspect what this person saw was an attack on himself (just like his comment felt like an attack on me), and he simply fell back onto the old “I’m going to insult you more than you insulted me”. It resulted in something just as ugly as what triggered it. The response was not excusable (nor was the original article), but it was more explainable.

To me this was an example of how entire arguments between people can be started and maintained just with ego – or who can insult the other the most. People can say things they may not really mean, just to ensure they don’t come out on the bottom. It was also an example highlighting how I temporarily forgot about the cause of a problem (i.e. the sexism in the original article) and instead focussed on someone’s response, just because it was more personal to me. Both should be addressed, but it’s more effective to focus on the root of a rotten plant rather than chopping away at its leaves.

Be careful of generalisations

As illustrated in the previous section, we need to be careful with our use of generalisations. Generalisations can be very hard to avoid. There are probably some in this article. The ones we really need to look out for are ones that “draw virtual lines” between groups of people, in such a way that is likely to cause an “us versus them” conflict where it shouldn’t exist.

Your communication should be as inclusive as possible. Speak as if groups of people are already on “your side”, and empower them further.

Example A: “You police should be screened for racial bias and corruption.”

Example B: “Police, let’s work together to identify those with racial bias and corruption, and work to address this issue.”

To me, the first example seems to imply that most police are guilty of racial bias and corruption, and that it’s fair to assume that. This instantly creates a virtual line separating all police from the rest of the population. The second example still mentions the need to address this issue, but states it in a way such that police as a group are not guilty – certain individuals are – and suggests that the police also want the issue to be addressed, which many of them likely do.

It’s important to remember that discrimination can occur to groups of people who aren’t the usual targets – we can accidentally slip divisive generalisations into our daily language. It’s the same kind of discrimination that many of us are fighting against, and we too have a responsibility to put an end to it, and avoid using it in our own language. Again, these are people who might actually share our core values, and we want to keep it that way. Being a good representative of a group of people, who other people generalise against, is only going to help your cause.

We want to try and avoid drawing virtual lines where they should not exist, because each line drawn results in a smaller portion of people who are on the same side of the line as us.

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Appreciate diversity of thought

I remember giving a presentation once and receiving some difficult, almost negative questions that I had never thought of before. At the time I was rather unprepared to answer them, and didn’t really favour being put on the spot. Sometime afterwards I noticed myself thinking about those questions deeply, and they actually opened my eyes to a lot of exciting possibilities. I was able to see through the negativity and think about their underlying point. Regardless of the somewhat pessimistic way that person phrased their opinion, I am happy that they put their questions forward, because they got me to think about things that would have eluded me otherwise.

I learnt that if you focus on appreciating diversity of thought, instead of focussing on how someone disagreed with you, you might just learn something new, or consider issues and opportunities that you never thought about before. The apparent pessimism is something that can be addressed separately to this.

Humans are a wonderfully diverse species both physically and mentally, and although this does result in much of the conflict we see today, it also has resulted in much of the progress, richness and strengths that we share as the inhabitants of this planet. I don’t want us to lose that diversity of thought; I just want us to be able to take those diverse thoughts and respectfully share them with each other.

Don’t take it to heart

These types of conversations can be very difficult and draining, even if you try to remove your own emotion – or in fact, especially so. People can attack you personally, or indirectly, but it is your choice whether to take it to heart. Remember that not everyone has learnt about the impact that their choice of language will have. We cannot control others, but we may lead by example.

I have noticed that it is also harder to continue attacking someone who is merely stating factual, respectful points and avoiding an ego battle. It is equivalent to remaining “neutral” throughout the debate – your opinions may be strong but your communication of them is neutral.

Remember, you can take a step back. Disengage. Come back when you are calm and ready. There is the common advice “don’t send an email when you’re angry”, and it is said for a reason.

And as always, you can also choose not to engage at all. We have to look after ourselves sometimes, and this is perfectly understandable. Plus, some people are so extremely stubborn that there is almost no point in engaging. Just know that if you do want to engage in a sensitive conversation, you don’t have to feel imprisoned by it. When you try to remain neutral in a conversation, rebuttals to your statements feel a little less personal to you. Think of a conversation as a discussion of ideas rather than a judgement of yourself.

Keep it open

As I’ve mentioned in other articles, times change, and effective methods of communication can change with them. It’s important to maintain a state of reflection whenever you have an encounter that went particularly badly or particularly well.

Find new ways to communicate better, and share them with the world - I would love to hear different ideas or even ones that challenge mine.

Acknowledging that you’re not always “right” will change the way you communicate an idea - it becomes an idea for discussion, rather than the only answer - and helps you to stay open-minded and grow.

It’s hard

Despite having these thoughts in my head constantly, I still make mistakes. I still look back at things I have written, particularly during times of emotion, and realised that what I wrote was not as effective as it could be and only fuelled the fire and achieved nothing. Verbal communication is still far more difficult to me, because I don’t have time to think, then rewrite, and get feedback, and rewrite. This will likely become easier with more repetition, much like many aspects of learning.

Effective communication is incredibly hard. Humans are so frustratingly, but also beautifully, diverse in our thoughts. But our messages are important, and they deserve to be heard exactly as we mean them to be. So I will keep trying, and even if you don’t agree with my thoughts, I hope this prompts you to reflect a bit about how your own communication could be more effective.