Life in 2016 is fraught with controversy. Politics are growing more and more polarized, casual racism and microaggressions are becoming less socially acceptable, and traditional gender roles are being challenged. No matter where you stand on the issues (or if you have yet to form an opinion), chances are, you’ve got someone yelling at you on either side. This makes staying cool, respectful, and rational all the more difficult. Here are some tips on how to share your opinions on controversial topics in a way that is most likely to get your point across without any hard feelings:
What not to do:
Before I get into my tips for how to keep your arguments respectfully persuasive, there are a few important things to avoid doing. I talked about some of this in one of my past posts, “What Not to Do When Raising Awareness Online,” but much of it bears repeating.
- Hurl insults. Contrary to what certain real estate moguls/Presidential candidates might have you believe, insulting people is not an effective way to get them to agree with you. Most people’s tendency is to become more angry and defensive when insulted. It is unlikely to compel them to reconsider their attitudes, reflect on how their actions/beliefs impact others, or change their perspective. If your goal is to change their behavior, focus your argument on that. If your goal is to get them to change their perspective, offer a better one. Insulting them on a personal level might make them feel bad, but it won’t make them change, and it will not further your cause.
- Make baseless claims. Giving people wrong information could potentially influence them, however, if they do their research and realize that you were misrepresenting the facts, they are less likely to take you seriously – both on the subject at hand and in the future. You don’t want to get a reputation as someone who distorts the facts simply to push a particular agenda. Additionally, even if you are lucky enough not to get caught in a lie, false information can sometimes spread, and can lead to major mistakes and even harm (such as the myth that spanking children makes them behave better, when it fact it harms their mental health and can make them more aggressive).
- Provoke violence or harassment (or suggest that someone deserves it). These days, too many of us are quick to express a desire to cause others harm. This makes sense – when we see something that upsets us, or hear about an instance of someone being hurt, often our gut instinct is to want to cause that person harm in retaliation. We may think that expressing that feeling means nothing, since we don’t actually have the power to do anything about it, and use incendiary language because it feels like no one is listening. However, the truth is that you never know who is listening (especially on the Internet). Saying that someone deserves to be hurt could get back to them and hurt their feelings, cause them fear, or worst of all, your statement could inspire someone else to take action and hurt someone in real life.
What to do:
Now that you have a better sense of what not to do, here are some things you can do to win people over on an intellectual level, with kindness and respect. These are the tactics that have helped me have enjoyable discussions and avoid shouting matches:
- Use facts in your argument. Using facts that back up what you’re saying doesn’t only make you sound smart. Researching your opinions before sharing them will help you better understand the subject at hand. Look for credible sources of scientific research, news, history, and other sources to make sure your opinions are informed, and you can use that knowledge to help inform others. If you can’t find any facts that support your argument, it might be time for you to reconsider your position.
- Tell stories that stimulate empathy. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock: humans are not completely rational beings. Rather than trying to manipulate people using fear and anger (which rarely actually works, see above section “What Not to Do”), try to help them better relate to the people who are placed most at risk by laws and attitudes that you oppose. For instance, if someone is arguing with you in favor of stricter rules for who can enter gendered bathrooms, try sharing information about the levels of bullying, harassment, and violence that transgender people face, and asking “how would you feel if someone told you that you didn’t look ‘man’ or ‘woman enough’ to enter the restroom where you feel most safe?” Helping someone put themselves in other people’s shoes has a better chance of changing their perspective than simply yelling at them or calling them names.
- Be sympathetic to people’s feelings. Sometimes being sensitive to others’ feelings means more than just resisting the urge to call them mean names. Sometimes people will feel hurt anyway if they sense that you do not respect them, or that you are implying hurtful things about them. If the person you are arguing with is getting upset, take some time out from arguing to ask “are you OK?” Be prepared to reassure them that you do not think they are a jerk, and that you respect them as a person. Remember – I know it is hard, but it is not impossible to tell someone that you think what they are saying is wrong, or even recognizing that their attitude is harmful, while still acknowledging that it does not make them a terrible person.
If you’d like to share a story about arguing respectfully with someone who you strongly disagree with, I would love to hear about it! Please share your story in the comments below, and let me know if there is anything I left out. As always, thanks for reading.