4 Tips for Healthier Communication on Social Media During Politically Polarizing Times

by Parent Co. August 24, 2017

Mother working at home with son

We’ve all been shocked by the Facebook posts of friends and family members since last November. Many of us are confused about the political opinions of those we love, and we’re doing our best to keep on loving them regardless of our differences. It’s the perfect time to set an example for kids who have today’s peculiar pressures of life broadcasting. Unfollowing and unfriending is the easy way out of relationships with people we fear are so different than us that we needn’t humor their words anymore. While unfriending is sometimes our quickest path to peace, we all know it’s not a permanent solution. We don’t stop loving people just because we disagree with them. Considering all of these nuances, I sought out to become a better communicator, particularly online, with friends and family members I don’t agree with, may it be political or in general. To identify some tactics for the next time I want to debate facts or comment on an eccentric social media post, I interviewed Dr. Rebecca Branstetter, a psychologist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are a few steps to take the next time you’re upset by something political (or not) posted by a friend or family member you care about.

Reflect on why the article or post was a trigger for you

By identifying the underlying emotion and acknowledging it to be true, you can begin to work through it. Is it anger, disappointment, fear, or disgust? “Don’t judge your emotion as good or bad,” says Branstetter. “Just make note of it. Labeling emotions can have a diffusing effect on their power to overwhelm you.”

Consider the source if an article upsets you

Was the article published by a reputable source, such as a leading news publication that’s known for reporting unbiased facts, or a lesser known online magazine that tends to skew in a certain political direction? Many articles draw attention with headlines that are purposefully provocative (clickbait), while other articles are fake news altogether. Today’s media landscape is difficult to navigate with all these complexities, but checking the source before reacting can save you from unnecessary emotional distress. If you discover that a source is false or unreliable, politely inquire about it, suggests Branstetter. Comment with “I had a tough time finding the original source of this article.” If you have also mistakenly shared news that wasn’t from a reputable source in the past, try mentioning it so the person who shared the false article can relate and is less likely to become defensive. Establishing a baseline understanding of the facts before discussing an issue can help get the two of you to a place where you can look for solutions together, or at least discuss your differences in opinion more objectively.

If you need to respond, do so with empathy

Empathy is the process of trying to take on another’s perspective. “It’s crucial for connection and communication,” says Branstetter. “Consider starting your reply to the post that upset you with something that shows empathy.” Examples of this include “I see you’re passionate about this issue. Here’s my perspective on it,” or “I understand this topic is important to you. It’s important to me, too. Care to take it offline?” Then, provide your opinion using the same kind of respectful language you would hope to read if someone commented on your posts. Rarely will hearts and minds be changed by responding with polarizing or demeaning comments. Furthermore, mind your emoticons. A study published by “The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology” found that wink faces ;-) used in “computer-mediated communication” (emails, posts, texting, etc.) imply sarcasm. This was the case 85 percent of the time, according to the study. That comment of yours when paired with a wink or smiley face could have greater implications than you think. Be weary of replying with what could come across as sarcastic and therefore belittling or passive aggressive.

Avoid broad labeling

When people are polarized in their beliefs, it can be difficult to see one another’s perspectives. This is compounded when we assign broad labels to people, e.g., Conservatives or Liberals. “When we reduce people to ‘us’ versus ‘them’ it shuts the door on empathy,” says Branstetter. “If you feel comfortable, personalize your answer about why the issue is important to you, so you are not viewed as just a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ but an actual person.” Despite your best efforts to show empathy and respond in a respectful way, there will always be others who do not follow suit. But if you speak your truth in a controlled, respectful way, you’ll feel heard and will have demonstrated to others how to exchange in a healthy way.

Parent Co.


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