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How To Argue Better Online: Civil Dialogue IS Possible

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Learn how to win an argument online, when to bow out, and how to respectfully engage people you don’t agree with.

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Click to see this video and lesson plan on KQED Learn.

Can you even win an argument online?

The Internet is known for bringing out the worst in people, thanks to something called the disinhibition effect. There are certain aspects of being online that actually lower people’s inhibitions, so people will do or say things they normally wouldn’t do IRL, which can make for some seriously toxic conversations. But, under the right conditions, people can and do actually engage in meaningful dialogue and sometimes change their minds about hot-button issues. The “Change my View” subreddit is an online community where people who are open to changing their minds engage in discourse around various topics, and sometimes people do indeed change their minds.

What gets people to change their minds online?


Researchers at Cornell University studied the Change My View subreddit to find out what kind of arguments get people to change their minds. A person is more likely to change their mind if they are presented with an argument with a completely different view than what they were originally thinking. In other words– if you’re able to present an argument that the other person has never considered before, you’re more likely to change their mind. Researchers also found that citing sources and having multiple rounds of back and forth makes it more likely that someone will change their mind.

How can you tell if someone won’t change their mind?

Researchers found that while having multiple rounds of back and forth was helpful– if you got past 5 rounds, you’ll probably be unsuccessful.  Also, if the person you are arguing with is using the royal  “we” instead of “I,” they probably aren’t going to change their mind. This signals that the person you talking with is representing group-think rather than their individual opinion. So in this case, it’s much harder to change a group’s mind than individuals.

How can you have meaningful conversations online with people you disagree with?

There are lots of different strategies on how to talk to people you disagree with, like finding the common ground and being respectful. Additionally, it’s important to remain calm, and not let emotions get out of hand. Another tip is to attack the argument, not the person, and to use “I” statements rather than “you.” Like instead of saying “you are such a fool,” it’d be better to say something like, “I disagree with that view because…” And it’s important to actually listen to the other point of view– it’s easy to dismiss any argument when you feel like you are super, right, but you might learn something if you actually listen.  At the end of the day, a good conversation should be about connecting with our common humanity rather than trying to “win” an argument. Keep an open mind, and be empathetic.


Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions 

Your Brain Is Hooked On Being Right (Harvard Business School)

How to Argue on the Internet without Losing Your Mind (New York Times)

How to Respectfully Disagree Online (Netsafe)

11 Tips for Talking for Someone You Disagree With (Psychology Today)

8 Steps to Disagreeing Online Without Being Disagreeable


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