When's the last time you had an online fight?




Unfortunately, most of us probably won't have to try particularly hard to recall the last time that this happened. In a recent survey, 76 percent of almost 2,700 respondents indicated that they have witnessed an argument over social media, 88 percent of respondents said that they believe people are less polite on social media than in person, 81 percent said that the difficult or emotionally charged conversations they have held over social media remain unresolved, and almost 20 percent of respondents indicated that they have actually decreased in-person contact with someone because of something they said online. In fact, 2 out of every 5 respondents -- almost half the sample -- reported that they have blocked, unsubscribed or "unfriended" someone because of an argument that they had on a social media site.

Typically, these online fights emerge because people are choosing to have crucial conversations -- discussions about politics, religion, or other sensitive topics -- on social media sites, which might not always be the best outlet for these debates.

“Social media platforms allow us to connect with others and strengthen relationships in ways that weren’t possible before. Sadly, they have also become the default forums for holding high-stakes conversations, blasting polarizing opinions and making statements with little regard for those within screen shot,” says Joseph Grenny, one of the investigators on this study and co-author of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. “We struggle to speak candidly and respectfully in person, let alone through a forum that allows no immediate feedback or the opportunity to see how our words will affect others.”

The research further indicates that younger people are four times more likely than Baby Boomers to actually prefer having emotionally charged conversations over social media, meaning that we can no longer ignore the importance of learning how to effectively communicate about sensitive topics online.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Joseph Grenny himself about this study and how he thinks social media could become a better forum for these debates.

Melanie Tannenbaum: First of all, let's start by defining what you mean by 'crucial conversations.' Are these just discussions that revolve around sensitive topics, like politics or religion? Or is it something more?

Joseph Grenny: That's a good question, and the distinction can be confusing. I want to be very clear that we are not trying to discourage people from expressing political opinions or intellectual viewpoints online altogether, even if those viewpoints are extreme. After all, social media sites like Facebook or Twitter can be a wonderful forum for that sort of thing. We improve as a democracy by expressing ideas. But, the issue we're dealing with now is, can manners catch up with technology so people learn how to properly have these conversations? How can we engage with friends and family about difficult topics when these issues might be personal or sensitive? It's not about whether or not the topic itself is controversial or political as much as its about whether or not it's a personal issue for someone.

MT: What is it about the online context that makes these conversations so difficult?

JG: One problem is that the human brain responds to social interaction so much from facial expression, and of course any kind of mediated interaction cuts you off from that. The challenge is that social media can be more like a monologue than a dialogue. You don’t have the real-time cues that take place that really inform people’s responses. That, to me, is the biggest structural challenge. You’re venturing into talking about highly politically and emotionally sensitive issues, robbed and starved of what the brain needs, which is facial recognition and facial analysis...all of that is absent in this conversation, so it makes sense that it would start drifting into unproductive habits.

MT: Speaking of productive habits, you write about “hot” vs. “cool” thoughts – for example, replacing “hot words” with clearer, calmer words, and pausing to control emotions before responding. Do you think that there's something in particular about the internet that leads people to act on emotions more often than they might do so in-person interactions?

JG: I think the primary problem is that when emotions are hot and we want immediate satisfaction, we want to satiate that emotion in the moment. Technology makes it so tempting to say something without thinking in a medium where you don’t have feedback. If I post something, I can assume that everyone will see sheer brilliance and absolute truth. I can imagine that their faces are filled with remorse for their horribly wrong opinions and admiration for my own, because I have nothing but my imagination to use as feedback. And so, given my desire for immediate gratification and the absence of helpful feedback via other people's body language and other cues, we head off in this foolhardy direction, like sprinting blind. The challenge here is that we’ve studied for 25 years how people deal with these crucial conversations in face-to-face contexts, and very few people handle them particularly well. If we can’t do it when we’re in a highly visual interaction, the odds of success on a social media site where we're starved of about 90% of the data that we’d use to create an appropriate response is about 0. You should never have a crucial conversation on social media. It ought to be possible for us to have spirited debate and intellectual disagreements without it getting personal, but that will never happen until we create norms for giving feedback about appropriate behavior online. We have norms about how people should behave in public, but online, we don’t have that yet. You either get "Likes" or you get nothing. Manners have not kept up with technology.

MT: So what do you think would be a good alternative? Having "Dislikes"?

JG: Yes! It will be healthier when online norms are more descriptive and informal, when they’re in the ether and everyone is aware of them. Much of what we have now is probably prescriptive – our parents, primary caregivers, or school experiences, maybe they’re all working off the same list, but we have some explicit experiences early on that help us know when we’ve crossed boundaries. As it stands now, the only way that you can express disapproval of someone's behavior is so passive that so few people recognize it as a cue that you did something inappropriate, let alone what specifically it is that you did. If you find out 3 weeks after the fact that someone unfriended you, you can’t necessarily trace it back to one specific thing that you said. That’s not a particularly potent way of shaping behavior -- nonspecific negative feedback that's only given periodically.

Take Facebook, for example. Facebook made a design decision early on that robbed it of the chance to give social cues back by creating a Like Button without an accompanying Dislike Button. They knew early on that what they wanted to do was create a positive experience every time anyone was on the site. Facebook's goal was not to create healthy social interaction, but just to create positive experiences....so they ended up removing one of the vehicles that we use to communicate social norms. Meanwhile, you have lots of people saying that they have disengaged or distanced themselves from people on Facebook. Over 1/3 of people that we surveyed said they have decreased contact with someone directly because of things that they have written or posted online, but only 13% of people think someone has decreased contact with them. So, people don’t realize when others are distancing themselves from them - they don't realize when they've done something socially "wrong." That’s the challenge. There’s no structured opportunity for giving feedback in these crucial conversations when they happen on social media sites, so norms and manners haven’t quite caught up with technology.

MT: But do you think that having a Dislike Button might start even more fights?

JG: Absolutely not. The way it is now, if someone posts something offensive, you get one caustic response and another caustic response coming back...it's very explicit and it's very drastic, and it's always from the same people who don't mind "speaking up" to communicate disapproval. But most of the people doing the "distancing" in these situations never say anything. If the lurkers had an option available besides "Like" or "Nothing" and could give cues or feedback that would more subtly signal disapproval, especially if there was a way to do it anonymously, that would start moderating people’s responses. It would communicate norms and expectations from the crowd. We're very receptive to "nudges" from the environment around us; students in a lecture hall can control teacher behavior just by leaning forward or backward. If a wider array of those kinds of nudges were available in social media, it would have an immediate and profound effect on behavior.

MT: This seems to paint a very pessimistic view of social media. For those of us who love our Facebooks, Twitters, and blogs (and who often write about political issues in these venues!), do you think social media can be an optimal outlet for these types of conversations? Or can we only hope to make them less bad than they currently are?

JG: Well first of all, there are different kinds of social media. When it comes to crucial conversations, things having to do with our relationships and how we connect with each other, bandwidth will always be the predictor of success. The more feedback I’m getting (face-to-face being the gold standard), the better. Video chat is better than IMing, which is better than e-mail. The closer we can get to approximating a real-time, in-person conversation, the better. Everything else will be an approximation of that, really. The degree to which the medium I’m using approaches true, face-to-face communication will be the degree to which I can have a successful conversation.

But really, social media platforms aren’t the problem. It’s how people are using them that has potential to destroy our most meaningful personal relationships. I think that social media could be a great outlet for important debates, but there are two big challenges in the way things are currently set up. The first is structural: How can people possibly get good feedback about what is (or isn't) working in how they communicate if there aren't subtle ways of expressing disapproval? How can norms be effectively communicated? The second problem is how, once there are structural guidelines in place, people can then acquire the skills to communicate these norms in an effective way. I’ve got a lot of hope for that; I think it is very possible. My hope would be that if we find a way to better shape healthy norms of communication in social media, we can hopefully make the usual "information bubbles" more permeable, and we’ll be able to coexist comfortably with people who have divergent views from our own, because the online social experience will be a positive one. If you and I were able to talk about tender subjects in a way that made me feel like you are at least a trustworthy opponent, I could stay friends with you, even if we disagree. That would hopefully pierce the information bubble to some degree and makes me less a victim of confirmation bias, selective exposure, or any of those other phenomena that create a homogenized, divisive world. For years, the foundation for religious diplomacy has been the act of bringing people with polar opposite points of view together and seeing if you can get them to talk with each other. It’s a fascinating process, as you get people who literally believe the other person represents the spawn of Satan to get in a room and talk, and even though these are unresolvable differences at their core, people never walk out. What always happens is that when people can get together and communicate in a meaningful way, they develop respect and intimacy in a way that is incredibly bonding. I know this is not only possible, but it is actually predictable, as long as manners catch up with the communication technology that we’re using to have these conversations. But if we don't know how to have these conversations in a constructive way, we will end up simply having a series of monologues.

In conclusion, the authors offer the following 5 specific guidelines for improving all of our "crucial conversations" on the Internet:

  1. Check your motives. Social media hasn’t only changed the way we communicate, it has modified our motives. Ask yourself, “Is my goal to get lots of ‘likes’ (or even provoke controversy)?” or “Do I want healthy dialogue?”
  2. Replace hot words. If your goal is to make a point rather than score a point, replace “hot” words that provoke offense with words that help others understand your position. For example, replace “that is idiotic” with “I disagree for the following reasons…”
  3. Pause to put emotions in check. Never post a comment when you’re feeling emotionally triggered. Never! If you wait four hours you’re likely to respond differently.
  4. Agree before you disagree. It’s fine to disagree, but don’t point out your disagreement until you acknowledge areas where you agree. Often, arguers agree on 80 percent of the topic but create a false sense of conflict when they spend all their time arguing over the other 20 percent.
  5. Trust your gut. When reading a response to your post and you feel the conversation is getting too emotional for an online exchange—you’re right! Stop. Take it offline. Or better yet, face-to-face.

It was a great chat, and I'm so glad that Joseph was available for this crucial conversation of our own!

How do you feel about the potential for having "crucial conversations" online? Do you think that Facebook would benefit from something akin to a "Dislike" button? Feel free to sound off in the comments! And if you're interested in this topic, you can read more about Joseph Grenny at his website or check out the book that we spoke about, Crucial Conversations.

Image of arguing people via Shutterstock user Rebelf. Infographic courtesy of the study authors.