• Online communication can escalate quickly, with people often being less cautious than in face-to-face conversation

  • Coach Neil Lawrence explores this phenomenon and the damage it does, offering tips to improve communication

I belong to a private social group for dog owners. We generally get along well together. Recently there was a video posted featuring the cutest pooch you’ve ever seen. The owners showed off their techniques, explained the process they used to train and settle their little guy into its new home. Many of the techniques were not those recommended generally by vets and experts. As a result, group members became agitated and the comments underneath clustered quickly .

It didn’t take long before comments boiled over into judgment, and communication divided into camps of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ with no seeming hope of negotiation. Then came the finger pointing and the ‘othering’ and as a result the replies became more heated. The spotlight question was about who good enough to be a dog owner. The heat intensified after this and became much more personal and attacking. The post author felt she was being ‘told off’. She thought she’d re-shared a video that was cute and did all this criticism this mean she wasn’t ‘fit’ to look after her dog?

Then rode in a potential saviour. A guy who made a heartfelt plea for more reflection from the group. He said there should be room for different perspectives and approaches. That we should be able to listen to each other. Reading this comment, I felt my shoulders relax. It was like someone was trying to bring us all back together. It was great. However, he finished his answer by saying it was a shame that the usual ‘dog Nazis’ were around to spoil things. This scuppered everything he had said before and for me, I felt his milk of human kindness sour – such a shame. My shoulders returned to stress lock...

Slowing down to avoid being reactive

Now hold on…before you all start to react as well, let’s look at the scenario. It’s a pretty typical one in the UK, of the type you see on social and business platforms all the time, isn’t it? It’s also the kind of tension I’ve experienced in text communications and I’m aware this observation is anecdotal not hard solid fact. However, if what I’m writing resonates with you, read on. Maybe it’s time to get clear about the ground rules for communicating, to help ourselves but also to support others.

When two or more people enter into a conversation it presents an opportunity for each to be enriched by the other. But that can and only will happen when the time is taken to be reflective, and so to avoid reactive or controlling behaviour. The best approach we can take is for us to just be.

Here’s something to try when in conversation with someone. Something to help increase awareness of how to interact but also to strengthen the opportunity for connection with the other person. Feel free to try it if it lands with you. It’s worth it!

  1. Listen deeply to the other person and suspend judgment whilst you are in that conversation. Just let their comments become the full centre of your focus.
  2. If you have a strong reaction against what they say, take the time to get beyond that knee jerk reaction. Breath the reaction in and let your body relax.
  3. Reflect on what you could do to address the situation. What is it you want to say that would help move the situation forward? Then if you want to take action, ask yourself what might create the best possibilities for that change? What action invites the opportunity to minimise the gap between you?
  4. Ask yourself honestly if you are better than the other person because of your views? Why ask this? It is so easy to get into a divided and limited mindset when interacting with another person. No helpful action ever arose from a feeling that we are better than someone else. If you are experiencing the feeling of being ‘right’ meaning being ‘better,’ ask what it would take to be seen as ‘equal’ to that other person?

My personal belief…well…I believe no change comes from finger pointing and ‘othering’. It is far better to look at what unites us. When I recognise conflict, I try to remember that in different circumstances I might hold their beliefs too. Our life experiences create the anger and bitterness that becomes our division. With a compassionate realisation, then and only then, we can helpfully respond.

So, in responding to others we need to remember:

  • “I don’t think I’m better than those who I disagree with, or those who disagree with me”
  • “I’m not looking to create division with those I disagree with, or those who disagree with me”
  • “I want to find a way to make the gap between me and the other person less”

Overcoming assumptions

I have had a number of interactions recently where  assumptions were made about my opinions because of my ‘labels’… (Jew, White, Middle Aged, Male, Gay, Fibromyalgia, PTSD survivor…) There were two interactions that happened online that I found particularly painful. The first happened after not leaving a comment – it was a post about tackling prejudice. The assumption made was that by writing nothing I must therefore agree with the prejudice.  

The second difficult situation happened after I wrote an unnecessarily snippy post myself and sent it to a contact. His response was outright hostility. When I realised my error in judgment, I tried to apologise and asked permission to repair the damage. He told me I was ‘weak’ for wanting to make up for the offence.

I do not think I collude with prejudice, nor do I think I am weak.

So here are two experiments I’m trying out to raise my levels of self-awareness in communication. Try them out if you find them of interest.

  • Experiment one: I am trying to notice how many times I ‘other’ people when I chat with them – how often do I think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ rather than ‘we’.
  • Experiment two: Here’s a more intense one – to try and notice how many times I’m thinking only about myself and my outcomes rather than connecting with the other person I’m in conversation with.

As a coach, as a writer and as a private person, I am deeply troubled about the rigidity that has crept into our lost ability as a society to communicate over the last ten years and has intensified since Covid. But I don’t want to just complain about it, I want to change what I’m doingThere are so many wonderful things about social media and the internet, it makes sad and heavy to think that the algorithmic nature of platforms often create the conditions for limited and reactive responses.

I’ll let you know how I get on...

Neil Lawrence is a welldoing.org coach in South East London and online 

Further reading

Can you choose whether you get angry?

This might be why that person gets under your skin

7 steps to resolve anger in relationships

'You always', 'You never': couples counselling to improve communication