If our desire is for a kinder, gentler, more humane society, one of the hidden barriers to achieving this aspiration may be the type of conversations we hold on social media.

My colleagues and I conducted an online survey of 2,698 respondents and found that social networks are becoming increasingly hostile. Specifically, 78 percent of users reported rising incivility online with 2 in 5 blocking, unsubscribing or “unfriending” someone over an argument on social media.

Mcmillan antisocialresizedUnfortunately, we found that contentious conversations that begin online tend to spill over into real life with 19 percent decreasing in-person contact with someone because of something they said online.

Although social media platforms allow us to connect with others and strengthen relationships in ways that weren’t possible before, as seen in the Church’s missionary efforts, when misused, they can destroy even our most meaningful relationships.

Anne reported that she loved the connections she and her siblings shared on social media. Her spread-out family posted almost daily details of their busy lives as well as their thoughts and feelings about family and spirituality. One of her siblings posted a strongly worded criticism of a political candidate. She also harshly disparaged anyone who held a different point of view. The site exploded with counter arguments, name-calling and personal insults. Some family members broke-off contact and still refuse to return phone calls-eight months later.

Many of us find it incredibly difficult to hold high stakes, emotionally-charged conversations face-to-face. Yet, when we resort to social media to have these tough conversations, we severely handicap our ability to hold them well. We have no immediate feedback, we cannot hear the nuance in the other person’s voice and we have no visual cues as to their meaning or how our words are affecting them.

How can we avoid the urge to lash-out or even unintentionally hurt others on social media?

Consider these tips:

  1. Check your motives. Social media hasn’t only changed the way we communicate, it has modified our motives. Ask yourself, “Is my goal to get lots of likes’ (or even provoke controversy)?” or “Do I want healthy dialogue?”
  2. Replace hot words. If your goal is to make a point rather than score a point, replace “hot” words that provoke offense with words that help others understand your position. For example, replace “that is idiotic” with “I disagree for the following reasons…”
  3. Pause to put emotions in check. Never post a comment when you’re feeling emotionally triggered. Never! If you wait four hours you’re likely to respond differently.
  4. Agree before you disagree. It’s fine to disagree, but don’t point out your disagreement until you acknowledge areas where you agree. Often, arguers agree on 80 percent of the topic but create a false sense of conflict when they spend all their time arguing over the other 20 percent.
  5. Trust your gut. When reading a response to your post and you feel the conversation is getting too emotional for an online exchange-you’re right! Stop. Take it offline. Or better yet, face-to-face.


The real challenge is for our manners to catch up with technology. When this occurs, social media can be a wonderful glue, improving our relationships and creating a kinder, more respectful society.

About Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations. For more than 30 years, he has served as an expert in interpersonal communication, change management and corporate training. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, consultant and co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500, been ranked by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in America for eight consecutive years, and has trained more than one million people worldwide. For related information from McMillan’s co-authors, visit the Crucial Skills blog at www.crucialskills.com.