|"Listening to the Birds" Winslow Homer|
Slowing down and listening, not only to what people are posting online, but to why they are posting things, will help to improve the level of discourse.
Fight, Flight, or Dialogue
In many ways your brain works from the inside out. At the core of your brain is a part called the amygdala that we have in common with nearly every brain-having animal on the planet. It's such a primal region of the brain that it is often colloquially known as the "lizard brain."*
Your lizard brain wants to keep you alive. That's pretty much it (it also wants to help you pass on your genes, but that's part of keeping the species alive). Whenever your sense get information they filter through your brain, it looks for something new and different, and checks to see if anything on a survival level is going on. The lizard brain checks to see if anything is threatening your survival, if there's anything to eat, or any reason to try to procreate.
It's what happens next that's important.
What should happen next is we run the lizard brain response back through the rational parts of our mind. That's why we don't usually attack people on the street, why we don't leap across the counter at the restaurant and take the food, and why we can be monogamous when we choose to. The lizard brain is working to keep us alive, but the rest of our brain is working to determine how we live.
Because our lizard brain is looking for things that are different and things that are primal, we usually respond most strongly to those things. We repost things that outrage us, things that terrify us, things that make us want to either fight or flee.
Neither of those responses is conducive to conversation.
Your brain learns to respond differently when you're doing different things. When you hear an explosion in November, your brain will likely trigger a fight or flight response. But when you hear one in early July you're going to be far less afraid. For me, if I see a spider across the room while I'm fully clothed and have shoes on my feet, I can notice it and move on with my life. But if I'm stumbling around, barefoot and in my pajamas and I happen across a spider right in front of me I will, in all likelihood, scream like a child.
Our brains shift gears and determine what gets sent down to the lizard brain for a survival check. The more we feel safe and at ease, the more likely we are have something trigger our survival check. If you're out, crossing the street during the day cars coming at you are normal and expected. Your lizard brain trusts the rest of your brain to figure it out and keep you alive.
One of the major issues with online communication is that our brain space is often in the home-safe zone rather than in the out-in-public zone. If I go downtown on a busy day I expect to see and hear things I don't agree with. I note them and then, usually, ignore them. But when I'm at home I expect to be safe. My lizard brain expects the stimuli to be of the food and sleep variety.
Because of the internet and smartphones we have the stimuli of a busy day downtown in the palm of our hand as we're stumbling around in our PJs before going to sleep. Our poor lizard brains don't know what to do.
Slow Down, You Move too Fast
It's a discipline to be able to see things online that are outrageous or terrifying and to do nothing.** That's the first step in having great dialogue online, however. Do nothing. Wait. Listen.
When your heart rate spike because you see something offensive, when your fingers twitch with the need to respond in anger or fear, when the arguments against a person line up in your brain ready to be deployed, that's the time to stop. Feed the response of your lizard brain back into your rational mind.
What are your afraid of? What are you angry about? Why did this post trigger your lizard brain to respond?
What fears and angers do you think drove the person who posted it? Why do they feel so threatened?
Sit with those questions until your heart rate returns to normal. Sit with them until your fingers stop trying to compose a heated reply on their own. Listen to what your rational brain is trying to tell you and listen to what drove the person to post what they did in the first place (not what they actually posted, but the underlying threat they felt).
Next up we'll talk about how to engage people.
*This is an incredible simplification of the concepts going on. If you want to know more about the "lizard brain" do some research on the limbic system.
**As an aside, this is a very similar process to seeing pornography online and choosing to not respond from the lizard brain. It takes conscious, practiced effort to resist the pull of instinctual responses.