Dealing with emotionally volatile topics online

Recently on one of the Ryze networks, after a fairly heated debate, one of the participants in the debate posted a “cool-down” message. In it, he wrote:

I want to tell you how difficult it is to use the written word to convey our feelings. It is too easy for misconceptions to happen when we cannot hear voice tones that may or may not indicate invective.

Yes, it can be difficult to use the written word to convey feelings. Isn’t it also extremely difficult to even identify your true feelings in the heat of a face-to-face conversation? And even more difficult to articulate them clearly and accurately?

It has been my experience, and there is a great deal of supporting research, that with a little training, online communication can actually be a far more effective medium for discussing emotionally volatile issues. But you have to know (and practice) some ground rules.

You are never backed into a corner online. Face-to-face, you can end up stumped for an answer, feeling like you have to fill an awkward pause. This frequently causes people to lie or simply to say things that aren’t indicative of their true feelings. How many times in the real world have you wished you could take back what you said? There’s no Backspace key in the real world.

You don’t have to answer immediately! I turn off my automatic send/receive in my e-mail, and whenever I’m writing a potentially volatile, sensitive, or just lengthy post on Ryze or elsewhere, I compose it off-line, save it, and reflect on it before sending. After you write something that’s emotionally charged, let it sit for at least 10-15 minutes. Cool yourself down, get centered, and read what you’ve written in a calmer state of mind. 9 times out of 10, you’ll completely re-write it (and that’s a good thing).

Assume good intent. I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s easier done online than in person. If something you read upsets you, don’t start writing!. Remind yourself, “assume good intent”. Re-read it, thinking what the best possible thing was they could have been thinking/intending when they wrote what they wrote. You can’t do that in person. (“Excuse me, could you please repeat that? What you said really ticked me off, and I’d like to hear it again and see if I can make it not tick me off so much.”)

Give context. Context creates meaning. All too often, we just write short little bursts without framing them. Make no assumptions about what the other person knows about where you’re coming from. If it’s important conversation, it doesn’t have to be super-short. It’s a dialog, not an executive report! 😉 If you give people context (“When I was growing up, my mother taught me…”, “My last boss always used to…”, etc.) This will help people not only understand what you’re thinking, but why. And we are all more understanding/empathetic/compassionate when we know why the other person is thinking what they’re thinking.

Of course, there are dozens more techniques for dealing with emotionally charged topics that are not unique to online communications. I won’t go into them here, but I will leave you with one additional thought (adapted from the prayer of St. Francis):

“Seek not so much to be understood as to understand.”