What to Do When Online Conversation Turns Ugly

Without the benefit of body language that can help soften or defuse tense conversations, online discussions are ripe for misunderstandings and heated exchanges. How can we make social media a kinder place for the healthy exchange of views? Here are a few common scenarios and suggested solutions.

            The shut-down. A disgruntled “friend” strongly suggests you pipe down on a topic you feel strongly about. They might say something along the lines of get over it, maybe you should unfriend me or you’re making people not like you.

            Solution: Women, in particular, are frequently the target of the “play nice” card. If the issue is important to you, ask yourself: “Why does my difference of opinion scare this person? Am I willing to risk alienating myself from some people by voicing my thoughts? Are those individuals really my friends to begin with?”

            Maybe quietly unfriending these folks is the best solution. Otherwise, respond with curiosity: “Why do you feel I should unfriend you? Why do my thoughts on this matter bother you?”

            Contempt. Instead of empathizing with or at least listening to your concerns, a friend or family member responds in a dismissive way. For example: “How dumb. Maybe you should run for office if you have such strong opinions.”

            According to the Oxford English Dictionary, contempt is defined as “the feeling that a person is beneath consideration or deserving scorn.” Renowned relationship researcher and psychologist Dr. John Gottman, author of The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work, calls contempt one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” and “the single greatest predictor of divorce.” Of course, contempt is poisonous to other relationships too.

            Solution: Disarm with compassion: “Clearly, I touched a nerve. Would you like to talk about it?” If your thoughts are frequently met with disgust by this person, you can respond with “I don’t allow people to talk to me/treat me that way.” If the toxic behavior continues, say goodbye or put the person at a healthy arm’s-length if you can’t completely dump the relationship from your life.

            Online confrontation. Your post or comment unleashes the fury of another person in your network. You dig in your heels. Friends jump in to take sides. Trolls show up. And the virtual mudslinging commences.

            Solution: Dale Carnegie once said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” First, consider whether a comment is worth addressing. Trolls bait people by dropping inflammatory comments into a thread. Don’t bite. If you do respond, take the higher road. Avoid personal attacks and excuse yourself from mean-spirited conversations: “As you’ve decided to make this personal, I’m exiting this conversation before I say something I regret.” Or, “While I disagree, I appreciate hearing a different opinion.” Reinforce positive exchanges by saying, “Thank you for the healthy debate.”

            Cyberbullying. Cyberbullying isn’t only a problem that affects kids. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, nearly 65 percent of young adults between 18 and 29 have experienced some sort of online harassment. Overall, 40 percent of adults have been victims of cyberbullying or online stalking.

            Solution: Respond to inflammatory remarks or name-calling by instructing the offending party to respectfully move along. Block any harasser that refuses. Avoid retaliating, which only can escalate the issue. If the person continues to attack you through private messaging, either ignore the message or calmly tell the person to stop contacting you. If the cyberbullying continues, save the messages in case you need to alert law enforcement.  

            Manage your emotions. You read something on a friend’s page that enrages you. Do you immediately blast off an angry comment or walk away?

            Solution: Give yourself a 24-hour cooling off period. This is a form of self-care and a healthy way to manage anger. Work through your anger in a private journal or talk to an empathetic friend. Take a walk, put on some soothing music or engage in an activity that steadies your heartbeat. By disengaging, you can put the situation in perspective, avoid making a remark you might later regret and preserve a relationship you care about.


Use the acronym “THINK” as a guide before posting online:

T - Is it thoughtful?

H - Is it helpful?

I - Is it informative or inspiring?

N - Is it necessary?

K - Is it kind?


Set a Positive Tone for Civil Online Conversation

  • Avoid publicly embarrassing or humiliating friends who share dissenting opinions.
  • Politely thank others for sharing opposing viewpoints.
  • Offer to continue a contentious disagreement in private.
  • Focus on informative exchanges. Ignore trolls.
  • Be curious. “Why do you feel that way?” Listen to learn.
  • Use friendly humor to dial down tension.
  • Reinforce respectful dialogue on your page. Warn and/or remove individuals who ignore your rules.

Freelance writer and communication researcher Christa Melnyk Hines resides in Olathe with her family. She is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.


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