How To Win An Argument Online

Judging by how many of my patients come in with stress-related physical maladies, I suspect the rest of this year will be very busy in my office.

Political seasons bring out the worst in us as a nation and as individuals, especially as polarized as we’ve become. The public debate around the election cycle has degenerated into groups of people calling each other names. Somewhere along the way, our schools stopped teaching the skills of tactfully presenting and defending an argument based on facts and logic. We’ve lost the ability to separate our thoughts from our feelings. Worse, we’ve developed a need to be validated and coddled.

We’ve become so self-interested and self-focused that we view any disagreement as a personal attack. A term I see more frequently in the news lately is “snowflake.” It’s used to describe people who are so emotionally fragile that they lash out at anyone who disagrees with them. That shuts down communication immediately. All learning ceases, just like that.

Every week, I dedicate Thursdays to the mental/emotional side of wellness. We call it “Think Right Thursday.” We’re multi-faceted beings, so physical wellness is incomplete without mental, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal wholeness. Frankly, what I see online and on TV is interpersonal sickness, and the stress of it is eventually going to manifest in physical and mental sickness. That’s not my opinion: that’s how we’re designed.

Everyone Has A Voice And A Right

Social media has given every individual a platform to voice his/her opinion, for better or for worse. You may have noticed this, but when people make their statements online, it feels like they are declaring the “final word” on the matter. Maybe they feel like, because no one is in the room, challenging them to their face, the discussion is over and settled. That’s a false sense of finality, but it’s a popular one. I may feel like I’m safe and anonymous in the comfort of my office, but when I voice my opinion in the digital marketplace of Facebook, it’s just like I’m standing on a street corner.

To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, for every opinion there is an equal and opposite opinion. As long as we feel free to give voice to our opinions in the public square in our nation that cherishes the First Amendment, we have to be prepared that someone holds the opposite opinion and has the same freedom to voice it.

Free speech is a hot-button topic. People seem to want freedom of speech, as long as it doesn’t offend them. The problem is, as soon as you start imposing limits on a freedom, it stops being a freedom. People say they want freedom, but what they really want is security, in the form of limiting other people’s freedom. Ultimately, the question becomes: who gets to decide what speech is permissible and what speech should be limited? That question is being answered every day here in America, and the needle is moving toward stifling our freedom of speech to protect the snowflakes.

And it’s all because we’ve lost the art of civil discourse.

How To Fight…And How Not To

So, since we’ve become so polarized, and in all likelihood, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where someone is challenging your opinion, let’s look at a couple of simple things you can do to defuse a confrontation, and a couple of things you DON’T want to do.

First of all, hiding and isolating yourself from people with different opinions won’t do you any good.

I’ve watched this strategy fail in the church my whole life. I meet people all the time who only want to do business with people of the same faith as them. They think it protects them from worldly influences, when in fact, it protects the world from ever hearing the Gospel. I think a lot of the moral decay in America is because Christians isolate themselves. You can’t be a positive force for change in your culture if you never go near it.

Even if you only talked to people from your same faith, there will still be people who believe differently. Just ask my friends from different denominations how they feel about the Holy Spirit. They’re all Christians, but they will tear each other’s hair out over that one doctrine.

Making a difference requires change, and change is uncomfortable, so you can’t expect everyone to be happy about it. Even Jesus said, “if you’re going to follow me, be ready for people to hate you.” (my paraphrase)

Anyway, be prepared for conflict. Don’t avoid it – embrace it. And take the high road. You don’t have to be a pushy, self-righteous jerk to change the world. In fact, you can’t. You have to win with kindness or you don’t win at all.

When someone disagrees with you, stop. Take a minute to do the following things:

  • Turn Down the Heat: Take all the emotion out of the discussion. They have a right to their opinion, and it doesn’t affect your value as a person in any way.
  • It’s Not Personal: Take the attack out of their comments and look at their side just in terms of the facts. They are disagreeing with an idea, not attacking you personally. If they really are attacking you personally, then they’ve already lost. Redirect the conversation back to the topic.
  • Turn Down the Volume: Remember…Calm. Polite. Respectful. Proverbs 15:1 says, “a soft answer turns away wrath.”
  • Prioritize The Relationship Over The Win: The temptation will arise to blow their doors off with facts, or show how stupid they are. Even if you are right, don’t do it. Not only will you make them double down on their argument and defend themselves, you risk losing the relationship and eliminating any possibility of having influence in their life. If you were hoping to sell them a product, lead them to faith, or get their support on an idea, humiliating them will slam the coffin lid, nail it shut, and bury it in concrete. You may enjoy the satisfaction of showing them up, but that is the last satisfaction you will ever get from them.
  • Take Them Seriously: Ask yourself if their ideas have merit. Perhaps they are seeing something that you hadn’t considered before, like a different perspective or facts that you didn’t know about. Maybe they’re just blathering on, but probably they aren’t.
  • Take It On The Chin: Acknowledge that maybe you were wrong about the whole thing or some part of it. We’re all human.  We all operate from a limited vantage point. We all have more to learn. Own up to it. That defuses the defensiveness and opens the door to dialogue.
  • Evaluate Your Own Position: Consider what information you used to form your opinion. If your opinion is based on something you heard from your favorite TV pundit, blogger, actor, or news program, chances are you don’t have all the facts. If you formed an opinion after reading a headline on Facebook, go ahead and assume that you don’t have all the facts and your opinion is distorted. Own it. Some of the things we are most passionate about are just distortions presented to us by our favorite news program. If you want to base your opinion on truth, look to the Bible. People won’t like it, but at least you know it doesn’t change based on whims
  • Validate The Other Person: From that place of humility, seek to build a bridge. Ask the other person to explain why they feel the way they do. It might make your blood boil. You might want to interject your opinion, but wait. Validate the other person’s view. Earn the right to be heard by honoring them. If their argument is based on wrong information, ask them where they got their information, and gently ask them to consider other facts. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were found to be wrong.
  • Don’t Give In To Provocation: Keep it about the facts. Don’t let emotions take over. The first person to give in to emotions loses, every time. Often, people who like to pick fights online will try to egg you on until you explode on them, then use your outburst against you. It’s insidious. Don’t give in.

Signals That You Won

You can often tell when someone’s argument has run out because they move from facts to personal attacks. Name-calling, cussing, slander, all-caps screaming, and off-topic criticisms are all signs that the other person is feeling exposed and defensive. When logical arguments run out, all they have left is personal attacks. It’s petty, immature, and shameful, but it’s how most online debates end up. Don’t let anger take over. Don’t take it personally, and don’t get offended. It’s evidence that they are feeling defeated and cornered. Take the high road – let them save face. Let them know that you value them as a person and petty squabbles over ideas will not derail your friendship. If they were trying to trap you into a fight, you stay above it.

I believe that division is a spiritual force and it works through distortion, anger, and offense to separate people. That means the other person is not the enemy: there is an enemy behind them, trying to get you into a fight. Don’t give in to it. Let love, joy, peace, consistency, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control guide your words and actions. After all, if you think this election cycle is bad, wait until we pick a president. This is just training. Learn how to handle it with grace.

I hope this was helpful to you. If so, I’d invite you to share it. Let’s get people thinking about defusing their social media fights before they start.

As I’ve been writing, I’ve had to reassess some conversations I’ve had recently with people. Even when I know I was right, I could have handled them differently, that’s for sure.

This quote has never been more true:

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas

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