Twitter and social media, in general, can be a savage place for conversations and attacks. I’ve had several occasions where people will reference negativity and attacks online as a reason for not engaging – especially for Twitter.

Discussions about online bullying have become more prominent during President Trump’s term, which may be one of the positives to come from his love for late-night tweets.

twitter angry vegan farmer conversation disagreement
I have been as guilty as the next person stoking the fires on Twitter.

This bullying takes place in agriculture and food conversations, as well. Many farmers and ranchers are attacked by Vegan and animal rights activists. In turn, those farmers and ranchers attack consumers who think differently than they do.

Example: What I Learned from Debating Animal Farmers Online

Scientists, and those standing up for technology, and attacked by anti-science activists for their beliefs. I’ve personally been on the receiving end of many of these conversations over the years. Generally, it’s easier to use the block button.

Lessons From Westboro Conversations?

Being staunch in our beliefs of what is right is common in the agriculture community). That is probably what made me stop and pause when this TED Talk came on my podcast player. “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left” by Megan Phelps-Roper.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write about Westboro today.

The TED Talk actually shares four great steps you can take to make real conversations possible with those who disagree with you. I know a few people (myself included) who could gain from applying these tips to daily interactions.

(Direct quotes from the TED Talk transcript)

Don’t assume bad intent.

Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget that they’re a human being with a lifetime of experience that shaped their mind, and we get stuck on that first wave of anger, and the conversation has a very hard time ever moving beyond it. But when we assume good or neutral intent, we give our minds a much stronger framework for dialogue.

Ask questions.

When we engage people across ideological divides, asking questions helps us map the disconnect between our differing points of view. That’s important because we can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is actually coming from and because it gives them an opportunity to point out flaws in our positions.

But asking questions serves another purpose; it signals to someone that they’re being heard. When my friends on Twitter stopped accusing and started asking questions, I almost automatically mirrored them. Their questions gave me room to speak, but they also gave me permission to ask them questions and to truly hear their responses. It fundamentally changed the dynamic of our conversation.

conversations farm food disagreement

Stay calm.

This takes practice and patience, but it’s powerful. Dialing up the volume and the snark is natural in stressful situations, but it tends to bring the conversation to an unsatisfactory, explosive end.

People often lament that digital communication makes us less civil, but this is one advantage that online conversations have over in-person ones. We have a buffer of time and space between us and the people whose ideas we find so frustrating. We can use that buffer. Instead of lashing out, we can pause, breathe, change the subject or walk away, and then come back to it when we’re ready.

Make the argument.

This might seem obvious, but one side effect of having strong beliefs is that we sometimes assume that the value of our position is or should be obvious and self-evident, that we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s their problem — that it’s not my job to educate them.

But if it were that simple, we would all see things the same way. As kind as my friends on Twitter were, if they hadn’t actually made their arguments, it would’ve been so much harder for me to see the world in a different way. We are all a product of our upbringing, and our beliefs reflect our experiences. We can’t expect others to spontaneously change their own minds. If we want change, we have to make the case for it.

Can we improve the conversations?

I didn’t summarize Megan’s words, and I encourage you to listen to the entire talk. There are some good lessons to learn here. Just as in my last post about Celeste Headlee‘s TED Talk on Conversation Skills Everyone Could Use.

Being a stronger communicator isn’t being weak. Employing a few of these tactics can help us better understand where the other side is coming from. Understanding that can help us better know how to share our message.

Send me a Tweet and let me know what you think.

The TED Talk wraps this up in a good way:

Each one of us contributes to the communities and the cultures and the societies that we make up. The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person who refuses to indulge these destructive, seductive impulses. We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us.

Megan Phelps-Roper

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