As I sat down to write this article I was thinking about tone policing.
I was thinking about all of the articles I’ve read that try to stress the importance of being nicer when we have hard things to say, about calling in versus calling out. These have never sat well with me, mostly because they only tell one-half of the story, and I feel they can enable us in not looking at our own role in volatile dynamics.
I’ve long held critiques about the way Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is talked about. People will coach others on how to speak in nonviolent ways, but they often fail to coach others on how to listen in nonviolent ways. Escalating conversations are always the other person’s problem, not ours. The truth of the matter is that, while each of us deserves respect, our culture is rife with dysfunctional communication strategies, even more importantly- most of us struggle to get a grasp on emotional self-awareness. We use someone else’s emotions, or their vulnerable states of frustration and anger as evidence that their words are not worthy of our consideration.
When we do this we risk perpetuating oppression and violence, and lose out on opportunities to learn.
While communication is certainly a two-way street and we are all accountable for the ways we engage with others, there are plenty of articles that discuss strategies for talking to others in ways they will hear. I want to highlight for you some strategies for listening to others in ways that will help you connect, de-escalate a situation, and open yourself up to learning and growth through mature and trauma-aware dialogue.
In today’s social media culture interactions can tend towards volatile and we may end up feeling hurt and afraid to engage at all.
For those of us invested in social justice, it can be especially disheartening to see the ways that our communities experience divides because of conflict at a time when cohesiveness feels more important than ever. Personally, I have been that person who has lashed out. I’ve also been the person who has been lashed out at. It’s not fun to be on either end, especially when at all of our cores we just want to be seen and understood.
From the sidelines, I’ve sometimes found myself frustrated at people’s inability to understand each other: either one person is speaking to their experience and another person feels personally attacked by it, or assumptions are made and they are unable to hear what the other is saying.
The good news is that we each have the power to try and shape our social media environments to foster better listening and understanding. We can start by noticing when we are feeling attacked or defensive, learning what that feels like in the body, and giving ourselves permission to take a break from a conversation until we’re in a more grounded state. Educate yourself about the four typical responses of a person in a state of high activation: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. As you deepen your self-awareness and begin to understand the ways that these defense mechanisms play out in others, you can start to distance yourself from a situation by understanding that it isn’t personal.
At some point, you will be more able to connect to the root cause of another person’s distress, and make a connection. Remember: connection is our goal and a fundamental need as human beings. We all need to feel understood, heard, and like we belong. When those needs are met, we are better able to hold space for conflict and turn problems into opportunities for learning, growth, and collaboration.
Below are five questions you can ask yourself to assess a high-conflict situation and help make a connection.
#1 Is this person in an obvious active crisis?
An example might be a person who has experienced a profound loss and is in active grieving, or a survivor who has just publicly exposed an abuser. For someone to publicly come out against someone who has perpetrated a serious harm against them means that they are likely in the midst of reliving their trauma. This example feels important to mention as in the magical and herbal communities many survivors have publicly come forward recently. I have witnessed them being shut down, accused of being too aggressive, or silenced in other ways.
In states of high activation like these, the prefrontal cortex (which helps us reason and communicate effectively) is much more difficult to access and primal self-defense patterns emerge. These patterns will be based on the environment a person grew up in as well as genetic and physiological predispositions.
Tip: Keep in mind that this person’s behavior towards you isn’t personal. The best thing you can do right now is to understand where this behavior is coming from and do your best to show them that you are listening to them. If that doesn’t feel possible, take a break until you feel more able to understand and hear their perspective. Perhaps show them that you are curious and genuinely want to know more. If you can find a way to do this very gently, you may be able to express in non-judgemental and non-blaming terms that you are really wanting to hear and understand them but you are feeling activated and would appreciate if they could try to reframe their words for you. If that approach is not possible at the time and you are still feeling hurt by their words/behavior later on, wait until things have calmed a bit to express how you felt, again in non-judgemental, non-blaming language.
#2 Has this person been engaging respectfully for a long time with no ability to get through to the person/people they’re talking with?
Look back over the conversation. Was the person seemingly calmer at first and then slowly became more activated as the conversation went on? Did the person have to repeat themselves several times throughout the same conversation or thread? It may be the case that the person was engaging respectfully and then after many attempts to communicate was being misheard, dismissed, or misunderstood, causing them to become more and more frustrated. This can happen to any of us, and these situations don’t always bring out our best side.
Tip: Pay attention to the conversation and notice if it slowly heats up or something suddenly seems to take a turn for the worse. Pause to collect yourself, then check to see if you’ve really been hearing the person. Express that you are genuinely wanting to understand. Ask clarifying questions, let them know you see that this has been frustrating for them, and thank them for taking the time and energy to share with you.
#3 Are you able to identify what triggered them?
If you are able to identify a clear trigger, such as a comment that you can clearly identify as racist, sexist, ableist, etc., this can give you a clue as to what might be so upsetting for them in that moment.
If you aren’t able to identify a clear trigger, notice if they are expressing that they felt an oppressive sentiment was present. Words or terms that would indicate them are any number of “-isms”, victim blaming, tone policing, etc. Other sentiments that might be expressed is the perception that they are being judged, dismissed, or shamed in some manner.
Keep in mind that if there is an axis of oppression you don’t experience, there are things you might not see or understand that are deeply hurtful to people who are affected by that oppression.
Tip: Notice trigger phrases, words, and sentiments. If a person seems to you to be lashing out, remember that this isn’t the first or the only incident that they’ve encountered language that has dehumanized or trivialized their experience or very identity. Let them know you see what happened and that it was not okay. Perhaps you feel that the person they are lashing out against doesn’t deserve that treatment. Remember that the best way to get someone to hear you is to let them know you’re hearing them too.
#4 Have you taken a break from the situation to cool down?
If you have been in the heat of the conversation without a break, the likelihood is high that you are just as activated as the person who you’re feeling attacked by or afraid of. There’s a probability that the person may even be simply saying their truth in a firm, but still respectful manner, and you are perceiving their words as an attack. Remember that tone isn’t always easily transmitted through text, and differing experiences and communication styles may mean that something experienced as an insult, slight, or attack, may have been intended in a more neutral way.
Another crucial consideration is that occupying privileged positions often comes with a level of sensitivity to having your privilege challenged. This text on White Fragility is an excellent place to start for unpacking your own sensitivity to hearing challenges to your privilege.
Tip: If you notice you’re feeling attacked by someone, or feeling defensive or like you’re being treated unfairly (or you feel that someone is treating others unfairly), put down your phone, walk away from the computer, for at least 15-20 minutes. Try not to think about the conversation at all. Play a game, watch a show you like, take a shower, do something that helps you cool down. When you are feeling more grounded, return to the conversation. Notice if your perspective has changed on the situation or if you are feeling more spacious and able to take in their message. As a note, it’s a kind gesture to let the person know that you’ll be taking a short leave but intend to come back.
Another trick is to try reading their words using different tones to try and decipher if it was a misreading of tone.
If you want to model even greater vulnerability, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills, tell them that you notice you’re feeling defensive and that you want to make sure you’re able to hear them. Don’t forget that on social media, bystanders are watching. When you show this self-insight and intention to engage from a place of kindness and authenticity, other people start to see that new ways of engaging are an option, and that they can do it too.
#5 What are your investments in the situation?
There are several threads that come to mind that this inquiry can take.
Firstly, is your investment in self-defense?
Secondly, are you invested in growth, learning, dialogue, and collaboration?
Thirdly, are you invested in relationship with this person?
Let’s unpack these:
For the first inquiry- recognize that becoming entangled in a situation is easy. People can set off triggers that we have held since childhood and suddenly something otherwise benign, or even well-intentioned becomes personal. An example that comes to mind is a person being told that something they said/did is racist (see the linked piece on white fragility above), sexist, oppressive or offensive. Defenses are raised as one tries to establish oneself as a good person, sometimes even while attempting to establish the other person as too sensitive, too angry, or easily offended.
The second inquiry is informed by the first inquiry. Check your values. Are you a person who wants to learn, is curious, oriented towards peace building and social justice? If so, it is crucial to find ways to be in dialogue that are non-defensive, where you are open to learning and influence, and able to understand that many truths exist at once and that the best answers are going to stem from many perspectives.
The third is a personal question that pairs well with both the first and second. Varying levels of intimacy from stranger, acquaintance, friend, and family or partner are going to affect not only the intensity of the feelings they bring up in you, but also your investment in maintaining a dynamic and healthy relationship. Even if this person is a stranger, sometimes simply witnessing and being witnessed by another human being is its own great reward. However, greater levels of connection are going to mean greater level of responsibility to the dynamic and require more care.
Finally, consider your investment in ushering in a social media culture that is growth-oriented and emotionally aware. Consider what publicly modeling empathetic and respectful engagement with others online might do to influence the emerging culture. It makes a bigger impact than one might think.
What if they don’t engage with you any further or say something too cruel for you to look past?
Understand that there may be people whose defenses are so high that you will have no way to get in. In some cases, it may be that the person is seeking to control the situation and isn’t really interested in being heard or understood. Use your best, most grounded judgement and intuition to try to get a sense for the situation.
In these instances, you have several options:
First, you could walk away. If you feel that the connection simply cannot be made at that time, it’s perfectly reasonable to leave the situation. Don’t waste your energy or end up frustrating yourself by trying to force something that’s not going to happen.
Second, it may be that a connection can’t be made right now but it can be made at a later time. Days, weeks, months, even years away from a conversation may be what’s needed before you can revisit a conflict. That revisiting may look like the person realizing that they needed to account for their behavior, or it may look like you finally understanding something that you weren’t able to at the time. Perhaps it will be a mix of both. Time doesn’t heal all wounds as some like to say, but it does lend perspective.
Third, you could firmly but respectfully express your experience of the situation. If possible, avoid making judgements and stick to observations. There are certainly situations where your judgement is valid and warranted or it feels important to your sense of integrity to share it- for example, unapologetically oppressive attitudes and behaviors. However, leaning into judgement territory can create the kind of impact that we’re hoping to avoid.
If connection and dialogue is your goal, the first response should be connection with the person in crisis. This means listening to them and making sure they feel heard and understood. This doesn’t have to mean you agree with them or their behavior, but it does mean that you are truly hearing what they are trying to say with openness and understanding. Growth-oriented approaches allow us to enter into a situation with willingness to be influenced by what we hear, see, and experience.
Try to keep a trauma-informed lens with you when you’re engaging with others. Understand that the way you are being treated is almost never a direct reflection on you or your character, but is about systems that are so much larger than you. You may be reflecting those systems back to them in a way that feels dangerous to them, resulting in a defensive posture. Keeping these things in mind goes a long way towards not taking things personally.
There will be times that you are going to feel attacked and too defensive to be the first person to make that connection, and that’s okay. But there will be times you will have to put aside your hurt and frustration to make that connection. If you have to go take a walk, get a drink of water first, or sleep on it, do what you need to do to get to a more grounded and open place. If you decide you just can’t do it, that’s okay too. Take your time and watch how practice opens up your ability to navigate these situations with grace.
As a parent, one of my guiding principles is that children are doing the best they can in any given moment with the resources available to them, and (barring some situations of domination and abuse) I hold this as true for most adults as well. As we begin to create environments where vulnerability, openness, respect, and listening are the norms, I believe that we can craft relationships and communities that are dynamic and resilient enough to weather conflict and where we bring out the best in each other- even on social media. Practicing these skills can help us shift the culture of social media toward one where greater understanding, dialogue, and connection is possible.