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How to be right on the internet

The internet is a wonderful place. It's full of knowledge, it enables us to stay close to family and friends, and sometimes there are people who get under your skin and cause an immense amount of frustration. I've been on both sides: the one dealing with troublemakers, but also the troublemaker himself.

Arguments and fights on the internet can make you feel exhausted, often having an effect on your mood in real life. So today I'd like to share a few guidelines with you on managing such situations. You can apply these rules to every situation: whether you've found yourself unwillingly dragged into a conversation that's quickly spiralling out of control, or whether you're the one who's getting a little heated yourself.

Finally, before diving in, I want to mention a very popular book on the topic of "how to deal with people": The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It's one of the most popular resources on people management, and part of this post was inspired by Covey's principles.

# The meaning of conflict

First things first: I use the term "conflict" and I want to make sure we're all on the same page on what it means. Let's look at the Oxford Dictionary's definition:

a situation in which people, groups or countries disagree strongly or are involved in a serious argument

Note how it doesn't say anything about the feelings of those people, groups or countries. This is the definition I'll assume when I use the term "conflict" throughout this post. It's a situation where a tension between people exists, but it doesn't mean that that situation needs to deteriorate into one where feelings are hurt and frustration arises.

When I say "conflict", it means there is a situation where people don't agree, but it doesn't mean they are fighting over it.

# Five rules

Instead of the seven habits described by Covey (which cover more than conflict resolving), we'll stick with five rules.

I've managed several online communities in the past years and most recently I've been moderating /r/php on Reddit. I wouldn't say I have to deal with conflicts every day, but they are very real and very abundant indeed. That's why I always try to follow these five rules when having a conversation, and I find they work very well.

The first four rules focus on conflict resolving in a constructive way. They have in common that they focus on a positive outcome. They assume a level of empathy and understanding. The fifth rule is for dealing with conflicts when there's no other way out. It's the emergency break when you notice the conversation is derailing. It's the most drastic one, but in some cases it's better to prevent further escalation.

Also note that you can use these rules, even when the other party doesn't agree to them. That's truly the power of these rules: you can apply them yourself even when the other side doesn't have the same constructive intentions. You'll notice that in most cases they'll even start copying your way of communication throughout a conflict, and start being constructive themselves, without even knowing.

Let's look at these rules one by one.

# Right or Wrong

Rule number one: there seldom is one absolute truth. Most times there's only our personal interpretation of any given situation. All of us have a background and context; things like education, programming languages, frameworks, projects and workplace have a tangible impact on our opinion, our view of the world.

There's a lot of power in realizing that both you and the other party are not neutral. I even think this offers a significant learning opportunity: a conflict where both parties are open to the context of the other one can result in valuable lessons for both.

We're only into rule one, and we've already identified a secondary goal: we can not only prevent conflicts from devolving into chaos, but we can seize the given opportunities to learn and grow. Even when the other party isn't interested in your context, it's still possible for you to grow.

# Perspective

You're on the internet, written text can — and will — be interpreted in other ways than intended. I'd say that written text is one of the worst mediums to resolve conflicts with, since there's very little nuance you can make with dry text.

This is why people on the internet often come across as more rude than they'd be in real life. While many simply forget about the downsides of text, some know it very well and abuse that "freedom" the internet gives. The way some people act online is mind-boggling to me: surely they can't be like this in real life? Realizing this reality will help you put heated conflicts into perspective.

But there's also something to say the other way around: you have to make sure the other party doesn't misinterpret what you wrote. That's why I try to explain my perspective clearly enough when dealing with a conflict. It often looks something like this:

"I want to make sure this doesn't come across as rude. I genuinely believe my point of view is the correct one, but I don't want to insult you by phrasing it in a rude or hurtful way."

Addressing your perspective and acknowledging that there can be differences is often enough to defuse tensions entirely.

# Expectations instead of assumptions

When reading someone's comments, you might be inclined to assume an undertone, an emotion, maybe even an unspoken opinion. These assumptions might trigger you in writing a more offensive response. You should be aware that all of this can happen unconsciously, and protect yourself from it.

The most effective way of doing so is by describing how you interpreted any given kind of text. Next you should allow the other party to correct your assumptions.

"I interpreted what you've written here as such and such, and want to make it clear that my answer is based on that interpretation. If you didn't mean it the way I interpreted it, please let me know."

From your point of view, you can be one step ahead and clarify your emotions and possible underlying feelings within the text. Furthermore, by reviewing what you've written, you can often identify parts that might be misconstrued and rewrite them. In some cases it even helps identify that you as well were driven by emotions without knowing and help prevent further escalation by rephrasing before posting.

# Conflict resolving

One important thing to keep in mind at all times is that resolving a conflict doesn't mean all parties have to agree. It's perfectly fine to step away without agreement. There are conflicts that can't be resolved, and you'll have to find a way of dealing with such situations. Sometimes this means that you both agree to disagree, but other times it can also result in one of the parties stepping away from a project or community. Conflict resolving can be drastic indeed, but it should always be done in a respectful and civilized manner.

If you keep the goal of resolving a conflict in mind, you can steer the conversation in the right way.

# The power of silence

Like I said before, the fifth rule is the emergency break. There are conflicts that you don't want to engage in or where the other party doesn't seem to be open to any kind of other opinion. You'll always have the power to simply step away from those conversations.

In such cases, it would be most polite to let the other party know you won't be engaging this conversation any further, but there might be cases where even such a message wouldn't be welcome. Just step away. You don't have to reply, you don't have to engage. Decide what's worth your time and what's not.

You shouldn't consider "stepping away" as failing: in some cases it's actually the better and smarter thing to do.

# In summary

  1. There is rarely one absolute truth, more often there are our interpretations, influenced by our personal context.
  2. Written text is one of the worst mediums to accurately describe your feelings. Use text to your advantage and clearly describe what your intentions are.
  3. Voice your assumptions instead of letting them guide you unintentionally.
  4. Resolving a conflict doesn't mean you have to agree with each other.
  5. If all else fails, you have the power to step away.

Thanks for reading! This post is part of my "Dev Diaries" series where I write about my own and personal experiences as a developer. Would you like to read some more?

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