There you are, scrolling through an email thread or the news feed of your favorite social media site, when what do you see? A comment by a colleague or friend that’s utterly outlandish! You can hardly believe it—how could they believe that? You limber up your fingers and thumbs and get ready to tell them how wrong they are…or you decide it’s not worth it and either do your best to ignore them or unfriend them immediately and never have contact with them again.

Has this happened to you or someone you know? So many of us are relying on email and social media to keep connected with others while in-person gathering is limited, yet few of us know how to effectively disagree online, and there’s so much to disagree about!

Just like the fight or flight response to danger, many of us do the same with disagreements online, but instead it’s fight or unfriend. Even though it’s online, there are real dangers in either strategy: trust is damaged, relationships are severed, positions become entrenched, fake news spreads, and we become more narrow and insular in our ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Options besides fight or unfriend do exist. In the spirit of helping you keep friends and colleagues, creating openness to other ways of thinking, and just making the internet a little less toxic, here are ten guidelines for disagreeing online.

1. Set your goal or intention

Before typing a response to a person you disagree with, ask yourself: What do I hope will happen as a result of this interaction? Asking this simple question will help you pause to sort through your emotional reactions to what was said, imagine the future you are hoping for, and respond from a more grounded place. Keep in mind that not all goals, like wanting them to realize how wrong they are, will have a positive outcome.

Examples of effective goals are:

  • Understanding the other person
  • Sharing your perspective and helping others understand you
  • Creating the possibility for change
  • Demonstrating the character of someone with your views and beliefs
  • Eliciting action from the other person

Note that if your goal is for the other person to do something—the last item above—then you might want to ask yourself if they even need to agree with you to be willing to take the action you are hoping for. Chances are they may be willing to act even with a different perspective.

2. Check your assumptions

Just because someone expresses a stereotypical view, don’t assume they are the stereotype. Use questions and reflections to ensure that you understand their unique perspective. Being curious can help you throughout a disagreement, and starting it off with a question rather than a statement can really help bridge understanding and ensure you both are at least talking about the same thing.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “What makes you so passionate about this?”
  • “Where do you get your information?”
  • “What does X mean to you?”
  • “So what’s important to you is X, is that right?”
  • “I want to understand, are you saying Y?”
  • “You said you feel Z about this, which I can understand given…”

3. Share your perspective and cite sources

Your perspective and how you came to your beliefs are unique to you—help others understand both. Just because you share a belief or preference with someone, why or how you came to believe or prefer that thing may still be vastly different. When disagreeing, it’s even more likely that the other person is making assumptions about you (just like you might have being doing about them, had you not read this article and followed the preceding guideline).

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “I believe X because…”
  • “When I see Y, I feel Z.”
  • “This is important to me because…”

In addition, share links to articles and information that swayed or influenced you:

  • “This article really swayed me: [insert your article link]”
  • “Do you have other sources for that information, because I am seeing this: [insert your article link]”

4. Use kindness, respect and compliments

We can and should always treat each other with kindness and respect. It can be challenging in a heated disagreement, but will pay off in the long run not only for how the other person feels about you, but for the relationship and how you feel about yourself as well. Showing kindness and respect, and even giving compliments to someone you disagree with, can also create an openness to change.

No matter what, don’t insult. It seems obvious, but I’m not talking about insulting just the person. Avoid insulting their ideas, positions and beliefs as well. If you’re about to use words like crazy, stupid, ridiculous, or other variants anywhere in your communication, don’t. Nothing will lead to entrenched positions and severed relationships more than insults.

It can be easy to think that if you tell someone about their strengths that you will look weak. But it’s not a zero-sum game. And far from showing weakness, giving compliments or praise shows strength. When is the last time you thought someone who praised you was weak? More often than not we feel a greater connection to those who point out our strengths.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “I admire your passion about this!”
  • “Thank you for helping me understand where you’re coming from.”
  • “I can tell you put a lot of thought into this.”
  • “Thank you for engaging with me on this.”
  • “Given your skill at X, despite our disagreement, I really value what you bring to the team.”

5. Agree when possible

Look for and mention things that you do agree on. Sometimes these may be things you both agree you don’t want! Regardless, pointing out the things you agree on can help build a bridge between you and the person you disagree with.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “Sounds like we both agree on X.”
  • “X is important to me too!”
  • “Even though we disagree on Y, I definitely agree with you on X.”

6. Be open to learning

No one person has all the answers, and showing you can change your point of view in light of new information can open the other person to reciprocating. It’s also those who think they know a lot who sometimes are at the greatest risk of missing important new information because they’ve stopped looking. If the other person is making sense, even though it’s a view or idea you hadn’t entertained before, it might be the doorway to a whole new world you hadn’t known even existed before.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “Good point, I didn’t realize X.”
  • “I’m going to look into this more.”
  • “Perhaps I do need to shift my opinion based on what you shared.”

7. Communicate your boundaries

We all have boundaries, many of which are unique to us in some way. If you don’t express your boundaries to others they may not know they crossed a line. Don’t tolerate abuse. Remove yourself from someone who is saying hurtful things. If possible, tell the person directly when they have crossed the line and then ask them for what you’d like instead.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “I find X hurtful, would you please refrain from saying things like that?”
  • “Please don’t use insults. I will give you the same respect.”
  • “When you say X, I feel Y; so would you please do Z instead?”
  • “I’m willing to discuss this but only if we can be civil towards each other.”

8. Focus on one thing at a time

Stay on topic. Otherwise emails, comments and posts can get too lengthy, everyone may lose focus, and confusion and frustration is likely to increase.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “Those are a lot of other good things to discuss, but could we focus on X for now?”
  • “Let’s start another thread to talk about Y.”
  • “I’m getting sidetracked, back to X…”

9. Support others

Disagreeing online can feel lonely, especially since many choose to avoid it. If you see someone sharing a lone view, try to be supportive. At the same time, don’t gang up. If you see many people expressing a view against someone, don’t jump on the bandwagon. Instead, see how you can support that person, even if they are expressing the view you disagree with.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “You’re not alone, I feel the same.”
  • “Thank you for sharing your point of view despite the other comments.”
  • “I appreciate your willingness to speak up about this.”
  • “Please treat Z with respect, we can disagree and still be civil with each other.”

10. Connect on other subjects

If possible, talk about other things with the person you disagree with so your relationship is about more than just the disagreement. Just like you, they have other interests, goals, challenges and aspirations they could talk about, probably at length. Ask about them! This will help defuse tensions and connect you both on a more human level, especially if the discussion has gotten heated.

Examples of things you could say include:

  • “How is your family doing these days?”
  • “What are your top ten vacation destinations? I’m looking for ideas for my bucket list.”
  • Respond to, comment on or like other posts or emails from the person that have nothing to do with the subject of the disagreement.

These guidelines should give you a good start in having better online disagreements. Of course, they are just the tip of the iceberg! If you are interested in learning more (which you should be since guideline number six is to be open to learning!), here are some resources:

  1. The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger
  2. Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide by Tania Israel
  3. How to Win an Argument Without Making Enemies, YouTube video by Charisma on Command
  4. Braver Angels, an organization working to depolarize America

The road to better online interactions starts with each of us doing our best to make things better. As the American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde has said: “Too often, we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation, or false and treacherous connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives.” There is so much potential in our disagreements if we are willing to have them and learn how to do so in a more effective, healthy way. Taking the time to read this article shows you care and gives me hope that we can create a healthier online environment together, one email, post, comment and like at a time.