Moderating All Things: How to Approach Heated Arguments

What are the two topics you’re never supposed to talk about, if you want to get along with people? Politics and religion. What a coincidence that these are the same two topics that you can’t escape on social media. Unless you block anyone who says anything political, your feed probably gets filled with posts daily just begging for two sides to start shouting at each other.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who wants to get involved but knows that these arguments tend to end poorly. Here are a few tips from my personal experience that have helped me navigate when and how to engage in these hot button arguments. I like to call it, Moderating All Things.

Look Before You Leap

My first tip is to approach this the same way I try to approach anything on social media. Start by moderating yourself. Step back, breath, and think about whether this is worth your time. In posting this, am I going to be improving or ruining someone else’s day? If I step away and come back tomorrow, would I still want to post this? Show some restraint.

Feel like starting an angry conversation? Join the discussion group!

Both Drew and I have experienced this several times where we’ve found ourselves stepping into an argument, and then end up spending several hours thinking and writing for a fruitless argument. That can be time well spent, on rare occasions, but often it’s time we could have spent working on something more valuable. Pick your battles carefully and know what you’re getting yourself into.

Be the Neutral 3rd Party

Partially because of the step above, I’m usually coming into these conversations late. I see the argument already going, realize I have something I want to say, but there’s already a lot of points going back and forth. Maybe you don’t want to butt-in on someone else’s conversation. But you have a unique opportunity to step in and focus the conversation.

These kinds of arguments tend to spiral out of control. Say I make a post about evidence for God. Then two people start arguing in the comments, and quickly go all over the place from whether miracles are possible to if the Bible endorsed slavery. My initial instinct is to go through and respond to each individual point I disagree with, but that would only make things even more disorganized. Instead, what I’ve begun doing is moderating the debate. Rather than taking the side you agree with and ganging up on the other, step in as a neutral 3rd party to narrate and help them come to an understanding.

Why Take This Approach?

When he shows up, you lose.

There is a simple reason I do this. The conversation is not going to get anywhere when people are angry. The principle Greg Koukl discusses in Tactics, and part of why he takes the tactical approach, is this: If either side becomes angry, I lose. If they’re angry, then defenses go up and they will be far less inclined to listen to what I have to say. If I get angry, it speaks poorly of my character and makes them less likely to want whatever I offer. Thus, my goal is to find ways to bring the heat down in these conversations while not shutting down communication entirely.

How do I moderate?

Here are a few of the steps you want to take when using this moderation method. It can take some practice and careful thought, but it’s good to be able to do this even if you don’t launch into the fray very often.

  • Put the pieces together

Follow the conversation up to that point and pick out what it was originally about, and where the arguments have gone from there. This doesn’t mean you need to understand every statement, but you will need to have a sense of the bigger picture.

  • Explain Each Side

Restate one side’s point and perspective in a simple way. If defenses are up, we struggle to hear arguments from the other person. If we listen at all, it’s only enough to prepare a response. Having a neutral 3rd party explain the points, without any investment or hostility, can make it easier to listen and understand. They can’t reasonably shout you down for what isn’t your view. You’re simply trying to help.

  • Point Out the Disconnect

Lastly, you want to bridge the gap. This is a good time to pull out a few Columbo questions. Is one side misconstruing the other? Tactfully question that. Is the other responding with harsh personal attacks? Consider calling them on that and try to get them to make an actual argument. Did he make a bold claim without any support? Ask him if he has support, or why he thinks that’s true.

In all of this, be polite, and know when to bow out if the other parties are not receptive. It may not be perfect, but the world needs more moderators. I hope you’ll join me in moderating all things.

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