Dealing With Conflicts in Social Media

In a growing trend, we deal with social media on a regular basis. Our communication styles vary between how we speak and write. I say, “The pen is always mightier than then sword.” So think twice before you commit words on paper or via any electronic medium. Many years ago, whilevolunteering for a social media services company, I responded to what I thought best to the following question.

Dear SMS Pen,

I’ve both blocked and been blocked by friends on social media sites after one of us has put our opinions out there on something controversial. The most painful was just before the presidential election when my cousin ripped on a candidate she opposed and I supported. I responded in a way I thought was pretty logical and reasonable. She was horrified and in her post described me as “insane” and “blind.” We unfriended each other, and at our family Christmas party I could hardly look at her.

I’ve concluded I should just not say anything meaningful on social media. Do you disagree? And what can I do to get my cousin back?


Without being satirical or too rhetorical, I responded in a way I knew best, so that I could help our bemused reader admonish the demons and guilt of “unfriending” someone via social media. The question was anonymous, signed only “Unfriended”. My response…

Dear Unfriended

First things first, let’s get your cousin back. Then we’ll talk about how to avoid losing another friend.

Ironically, I’m using a form of technology to talk with you about how to avoid rupturing relationships in social media.Moreover, I run all the same risks you do. In my desire to help, I could say something that offends you. There is nothing I want less.

Social media is like viewing the world through a straw. Your real situation is three-dimensional, rich, and complex—and all I have to respond to is the 100 or so words you typed to me. I may grossly misunderstand what is going on. In addition, you, looking through your straw at me, may grossly misunderstand my intentions as I respond. This means that when we venture through our straw to have crucial conversations, misunderstanding and conflict are almost inevitable.

With that said, let me push a few words through the straw to you in the hope that something I say may provoke useful thought.

1. Find your part

You aren’t hurting your cousin. It’s your cousin’s story that is hurting her. She is aching because somehow she read the few words you wrote and found evidence of something that caused her pain. Perhaps she thought you disrespected her. Perhaps she thought your political opinion meant you were immoral or uncaring about something sacred to her. Perhaps she felt humiliated because you disagreed with her in a public forum.

The point, she read the few words you poked through the social media straw and added intentions, attributions, and judgments to them in a way that was deeply hurtful to her. If you want your cousin back, go back and read your posts not with the intent of defending what you wrote, but with the intent of finding the story she might be telling herself that is hurting her. Surrender any need for justification. Focus only on finding empathy for the hurt your cousin feels.

2. Own your part

Call or meet with your cousin, and don’t e-mail or text or send a Facebook message. Do it the way your grandparents did in the olden days—face-to-face! Don’t go with any expectation of reciprocity. She may need some time to feel safe enough to examine her part and be vulnerable to you again. If you love her, you’ll give her that time.

Simply ask for five minutes to express your feelings, and tell her she need not respond immediately. Then own everything you can. For example, you might say, “I want our relationship back. So I’ve been thinking hard about what I’ve done to offend you. I still don’t know for sure and would like you to tell me if I am not aware of something. I think it was wrong for me to say your candidate was an idiot. I realise you might have thought I was calling you an idiot for supporting him. It was an irresponsible and disrespectful way of expressing my opinion, and I suspect it might have felt insulting to you. Even worse, I did it in front of our 924 mutual friends. I am sorry for doing that and for any pain it caused you.” Conclude by letting her know you are willing to wait until she is ready to talk more.

The key to getting your cousin back is deciding that having her back is what you really want—more than saving face, or being right, or any other motive. If it is, then I’m confident you’ll find a way to restore the relationship. I’m sure underneath all the hurt, pain and ego, she does miss you.

So, let’s talk about how to talk through a straw without losing friends. The biggest problem with social media—and all technology-mediated communication—is manners haven’t caught up with the reduced bandwidth. As you know, my co-authors have spent much of their careers studying how people deal with emotionally and politically risky communication.We’ve discovered that, even when communicating with the full face-to-face bandwidth that lets me see and hear massive amounts of data, when it matters most we do our worst. Now, you and I are attempting to do what we could not do well while taking in a trickle of feedback. Is it any wonder we’re wreaking havoc on relationships right and left?

Here is my advice for holding a crucial conversation in social media.

3. Don’t

It’s a fool’s errand. You need all the bandwidth you can get to hold a crucial conversation. Why tie your hands behind your back, blindfold yourself, and hop on one leg when you can easily jack up the bandwidth by making a call, using Skype, or meeting with the person face-to-face?

4. Every person is a moderator

Debate is fine on social media. If you want to hold a spirited discussion about differing views, social forums can be a great place to view, test, and improve your opinions. However, it is also a great place to teach manners. If no one feels responsible to cry foul when someone violates good manners in public postings, the quality of the dialogue will inevitably degenerate into exhibitionism. It will be a place to get attention through disgraceful antics rather than engage in healthy conversation. I suggest every one of us appoint ourselves as moderators and cry “foul” when anyone crosses the following lines:

a. Personal attack – when someone disparages a participant rather than commenting on an idea, there is no benefit to the conversation.

b. Lazy words – a person who shares logic or data to illustrate why they disagree with an idea is contributing. One who simply dismisses it with judgment words like “stupid” or “irresponsible” is substituting insult for information. It’s a lazy way of attempting to persuade because it required no research or exposition. It’s a way of playing to your base rather than influencing the worthy opponent. (By the way, my very choice to call them “lazy words” is a hypocritical violation of this very point!)

c. Monologue – someone who is truly interested in learning rather than performing will not just make points will ask questions. Their posts will be brief, to the point, and will exhibit curiosity about others’ views, not just demonstrate conviction about their own. They will not take all the airtime with long diatribes, they will be brief, make a single point or two, and then encourage others to share the air with them.

When you see people violate any of these simple manners of spirited and respectful debate, call them out and hold them accountable. Let them know you will either exit or exclude them unless they keep the debate civil and useful. If many of us empower ourselves as moderators, and exert appropriate social influence to call out those who use personal attacks, lazy words, and monologues, we can quickly close the gap between manners and technology. We will retain friends and profit from invigorating dialogue.

5. Trust your gut

We all know the feeling we get when we realise the conversation has just turned crucial, and that we should stop using the medium at hand. The hairs on your arm get prickly, you start to feel anxious, type faster, press the keys harder, etc. Whatever the cue, trust it. At the first sign, you need more bandwidth, STOP and change media, pick up the phone, jump on a video conference, or take your most convenient transportation. Whatever you do, quit looking through a straw or you’ll risk losing a friend.

A few months later, our editor received a call, Joan Bemoanno longer lamented on her newfound friendship with her cousin albeit in a stronger, more genuine relationship.


Richard Aitkins

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