Five Tips for Debating Online and Coming Out Alive

By Stacey Ross

Do the phrases ‘Zimmerman trial,’ ‘breastfeeding in public,’ or ‘Obamacare’ get your heart skipping a beat just at the sight of the words? Social media platforms, without doubt, house some heated debates about all sorts of topics, from politics to pop culture. There are pros and cons to how these messages are shared, however. The range of communication styles is as diverse as the angles and perspectives – ranging from folks compassionately engaging each other, to downright demolishing one another.

I asked my colleagues to share their thoughts about what guidelines they follow when they express disagreement on their social media platforms or when they share personal viewpoints that might be controversial. Here are a few responses:

“I always tell people to be mindful of their word choice because readers have no way to know your tone and, if they overlay their own words, yours can be given meaning that you never intended.” ~ Sara F. Hawkins

“I’m always mindful of what I say due to my career and professional standing. That aside, I’m an open book and speak my mind. If someone takes my views personally or thinks less of me because of them, then I’m probably better off without them. Life is too short to not show your passion or your beliefs. I have lots of friends who feel the opposite of what I do on certain things yet we still derive value from an open and mature dialogue.”Scott Gulbransen

“I don’t get into debates anymore online. People don’t know how to have a discussion without bashing each other and judging them, so when I see someone post something I don’t agree with, I just skip over and ignore it.”Hillary Lachman Gardner

Oops, I did it again!

If you are like I am, at one point in your online life you broke the pact with yourself that you would refrain from interacting online when it comes to certain topics or heated debates. Then maybe you swore you were going to take a long break from social media, but a few days later you returned, yet again! A love hate thing! And then, chances are that you remember at least one time that your finger hovered, hovered, hovered over the “Enter” key and time froze – and POW – you just went for it anyway!

“Oh  – – – -, what did I just do?!” you might have thought; either that or “OMG, yes, I finally did it!”

You might, as I do, have one or two valuable live-and-learn experiences to help guide you for the next online adventure!

The following are tips to keep in mind when you want to exchange ideas online but still keep it classy:

1. Decide if you want to be in an exchange or in a battle. Make sure to use language that does not belittle, condemn, name-call or insult those who are chatting with you. If you look at it as war, then you are approaching it as a heated debate, with the aim to win and be right vs. listen to others’ ideas. Both platforms surely exist, and are not necessarily discouraged, as they drive attention and traffic. It comes down to a choice.

2. Avoid the ultra-heated rants! Keep in mind that some online personalities have a “shtick” designed to keep their posts evocative, confrontational, edgy, sassy and even insulting. They get paid to vent and pull peoples’ strings. If you can stand the heat, then have fun (I guess?!), but keep in mind that first and foremost they are entertainers, and they are not worried about offending your inner child!

3. Know your limitations. Have a line that you draw which defines the degree of “debating” you will tolerate, meaning that if your stream gets way out of hand by trouble-making trolls, you might need to get in and moderate the comments, or even delete offensive messages. Some people even go to the extent, depending on their platform, to state what they will not accept language-wise on their pages. It really is a professional and/or personal call!

4. Share compelling information to state your case. Otherwise, if you are just coming from pure speculation, you will not be taken too seriously. Speaking from the heart and head are two totally different approaches. The best facts, documents, examples and/or experiences to back up your viewpoint will make you shine bright like a diamond.

Check the validity of your example and make sure that it is the best you can find. If you are not pulling from facts, then be honest and share that you “speculate” or “have a strong hunch” about something vs. letting lose like a cannon!

5. Be polite! It might not offer as much of an adrenaline rush, but it surely will give you more credibility! Especially if you are a voice of authority that wishes to remain esteemed in your online community. Maintain your cool and don’t give in to letting your emotions go wild. You will come off as way too self-important and callous, like you are too good for your platform. When doing so, what leaks out is sarcasm, bitterness, and a basic sense that pretty much what others have to say doesn’t really matter. If that is what you wish for, then disregard the above.

Be sure to not make fun of or personally attack whomever is disagreeing or showing a different side. Chances are that this topic might weigh heavy and touch a nerve with more people than you can imagine. There might be very valid reasons that they see things through a different lens than you do.

My colleague Lin as a preface to a recent post on her site,, shared, “It’s okay to have an opinion, passion, conviction, difference, and disagreement – it’s not okay to be disrespectful. Don’t force what you think on me and I won’t force what I think on you and that way we can learn from each other.”

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.


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