Connecting With Others Through Meaningful Dialogue

Many people are asking themselves how to keep their psychological house safe from digital intruders constantly breaking into their consciousness via online posts and tweets. Now, practically everyone is connected with friends and family through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. It can be fun to post pictures, swap ideas and talk about what is happening in your life. And social networking sites can’t be beat in terms of speed in delivering news updates and providing unfiltered access to the musings of others near and far. Celebrities, those in leadership positions and average people alike all feel empowered by the potential breadth and effect of these instantaneous messages. 

However, it can be shocking to see people we are connected to post thoughts that are distasteful to our sensibilities. We can be left wondering just where we diverged from old friends, acquaintances and even family members.  Postings regarding recent political events can sometimes leave us questioning if we ever really knew these people at all.

To Respond or Not Respond…

Should you block an individual who posts unsettling updates or even consider “unfriending” them? With many acquaintances the answer may be yes. The cost/benefit analysis of being privy to the political beliefs of someone you interned with 20 years ago should be fairly obvious. However, more often than not, we hold back. Why? Obviously, we are concerned with alienating people we care about. Most of us also want to be well thought of even by people we don’t particularly like. However, many are fearful that breaking connections or digitally “turning their backs” may further strengthen the echo chamber of social networks that expose us only to those with similar tastes.

Research has long supported the effects of sequestering people with similar beliefs together for long periods of time. Repeated exposure to those with similar beliefs not only multiplies the strength of existing beliefs, but also pushes those beliefs to become more extreme and resistant to contrary evidence. At the extreme, these groups become radicalized. The polarizing effects of digitally and physically sequestering groups is well documented in our current political climate and helps explain the national divisiveness we now encounter daily.

In order to overcome this polarization, concerned citizens are repeatedly told that we must educate ourselves about the experiences of people very different from ourselves to push beyond this gridlock of finger pointing. We are even told that our lack of education about the other side is what has gotten us into this mess. Therefore, many people believe that it is a duty to engage with or endure disturbing posts. Strictly speaking, this might be true if the only interactions you have are online. However, all of us also have the option to limit or filter these upsetting intrusions and pursue additional ways to educate ourselves and promote greater understanding across the political divide.

Making Choices to Protect Your Sanity

I feel that living with constant unfiltered posts and tweets is like living in a crowded room with everyone you have ever met (and many you haven’t ever laid eyes on). They are constantly tapping you on the shoulder and sharing their latest random thought. You have the right to choose the amount of space you are willing to give these intrusions.

It’s critical for all of us to regularly step outside the digital realm to interact with and learn from others face-to-face. You may find these interactions have the added bonus of being more meaningful because when we are actually in the same room with the other person, we each have a much better chance of fully taking in the other’s communications (both verbal and non-verbal) as well as experiencing one another’s full humanity.

Many of us shrink from the intimacy of such face-to-face interactions because we have become accustomed to expressing our opinions in the relative safety and singularity of digital media. Most people can fool themselves into only recognizing the sense of liberation provided by the immediate gratification of digital communication. We often underestimate the costs of speaking our minds and only register the toll when we are on the receiving end of a digital flame that leaves us feeling enraged, rejected and misunderstood.

Social and other digital media let us engage in communications at an accelerated rate that often does not allow time for careful consideration and thought. This tends to result in either overreacting to or turning away from the perpetrator of our distress. Either response can leave us feeling impotent or defensive. If we tell the other person off we may feel better for a few minutes, but have we really changed anything or just perpetuated the cycle of abuse? 

No matter which option you choose you are left with trying to put your psychological house back in balance. Speaking your mind in person, in an appropriate way takes courage and persistence. But if you focus your energy of respectfully hearing the other person out, you will both have a much better chance of keeping your balance in these trying times.