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I’ve been guilty on several occasions of adding more noise, confusion, or division to an important political topic on social media, rather than contributing genuine value. This might be true for many of you as well.

First, Full Disclosure

I do believe that it’s important to discuss politics, whether online or in day-to-day life, because politics births policies that determine the quality of freedom, health, safety, nourishment, and shelter experienced by those living under the policies.

Pretending that an issue “has nothing to do with politics,” or ignoring discussion on the issue because of personal discomfort, fails to address the suffering that results from unjust policies. Quite often, this discomfort dovetails with an inability or unwillingness to come to terms with one’s privilege.

If anything we need more, not fewer, discussions on politics–but they need to be skillful, compassionate conversations, characterized by actively listening to others and thoughtfully responding rather than reacting. Discussions that collaborate to solve problems rather than cast blame.

Here’s what I’m trying to do differently.

Doing the Homework

First, I’m thinking critically through a political topic–including challenging my own perspectives and biases, and doing thorough research–before posting about it or commenting on someone else’s post. This has required a significant investment of time reading, listening, and writing out my ideas–probably 15-20 hours per week across the past couple of months.

It’s imperative to realize that we can’t just “show up” to a complex conversation that we’re not used to having, and expect to blow people’s minds or be greeted with open arms. When we show up as a curious learner who’s already been proactive in doing their “homework,” we’re more likely to be taken seriously and engaged as a contributor to the collective learning.

And those most affected by injustices are more likely to enhance our learning through sharing their perspectives if we don’t approach them with a blank slate and a “can you please teach me all about this?” mindset.

Adding Value, Not Noise

Next, when posting or commenting, I’m getting better at clarifying and then emphasizing what’s most important to know or do regarding the issue. What are one or two steps that anyone can take that will will make things better for people, especially members of Historically Underrepresented Groups, who are impacted by the political issue or policy?

It’s difficult to be heard, even for a few seconds, amid the decibels of constant information and opinion overload. If someone grants you those fleeting moments of their precious attention, ensure you’re offering them a clear step and a reason to take that step.

Responding Rather Than Reacting

My hunch is that most people who disagree with something I post simply ignore it. But when something I post is directly criticized by others, rather than getting into a back-and-forth online debate (which is seldom effective), I’m planning on responding with something like this:

“We likely won’t change each other’s opinions on this topic through commenting back and forth, so I will conclude my comments with this: I’m sorry that my words were upsetting to you. I can tell that this topic generates pain and suffering for you, and I wish instead for you to experience love, kindness, compassion, joy, and peace.”

The paragraph above attempts to accomplish three things:

  1. Acknowledge reality.
  2. Take ownership, regardless of whether I think “I’m right” and “they’re wrong,” remembering that, in the end, it’s more important to kind than to be validated.
  3. Tune in to the other person’s humanity, knowing that all people want to suffer less and be happier, and that each of us contains and offers a mixture of positive and negative intentions, words, and actions. My particular word choices here, such as “pain and suffering,” and “love, kindness, compassion, joy, and peace,” mirror my mindfulness practices and my ongoing goal of relieving suffering–for myself and others. They also reflect my ongoing study of famous non-violent activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Addressing Injustice With Politicians or Policy Makers

In the face of blatant, arrogant injustices enacted or tolerated by people in positions of power, it’s easy to denigrate such people in very public manners on social media. I’ve done this more times than I could hope to count, especially toward Donald Trump.

I’ve been refining the following verbiage, which I intend to use as “seed material” to form posts or responses to posts that name specific politicians or policy makers:

“I’m sad that you’ve chosen to address this issue in such a manner, because I fear that many people will suffer as a result of your decision.

I’m curious regarding the type and amount of pain and suffering that you’ve experienced across your own life, and how it might have led you to believe that this was the best course of action? May you, and those who suffer as a result of unjust laws and policies such as this, experience deep love, kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

I hope that you will explore and implement different, more equitable policies than what you’ve chosen here. Regardless of your choices, I will continue to advocate for just treatment of underprivileged and underrepresented individuals.”

This approach aims to accomplish four things:

  1. Address the political leader’s behavior, and impact of their behavior, rather than their character or values.
  2. Express empathy for what might be driving choices that harm others–even if you don’t think the person recognizes their own deep suffering. (Trust me–anyone causing others to suffer is most definitely suffering a great deal as well.)
  3. Encourage the leader to do something different.
  4. Advise the leader that you oppose their behavior and will continue to do so.

Wait–isn’t it likely that the politician isn’t going to read or care about your response?

This is true. So why bother?

“Bother” because you’re responding so that other laypersons like yourself will read and consider it, with the hope that they take action to fight the unjust policy and do so in a skillful and compassionate way.

Anger Feels Good…Momentarily

I’m taking the steps I’ve outlined here not only because I want to add value to the conversation and be taken as a serious contributor, but because I want to suffer less. The adrenaline of getting fired up by something I’ve read online feels good momentarily, as does lashing out with angry words (especially if done in a clever or humorous way that others “like.”)

But the adrenaline quickly gives way to unhappiness, because angry words are seldom kind words; and acting unkind to anyone, in any manner, produces a self-inflicted wound. You might not know right away that the wound has occurred, but you’re suffering nonetheless and there will be consequences for you.

I make such a claim not from theoretical conjecture but from decades of experience at getting angry, expressing that anger in an unhelpful manner, and almost immediately regretting my choices. I’m much happier when I take the time to be compassionate and skillful in my responses.

Check out this post on Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for additional guidance on how to engage in healthy, productive dialogue with others, whether online or in person.

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.