©Paul Hamilton Smith, 2023

1) Before you write your own post or create a response to someone else, decide whether your goal is to persuade, educate, inform, express your own hurt or dismay (and that can make a difference to the debate), or to get even or punish. NEVER post something to get even or punish. (See No. 3 below)

2) Wait for awhile before posting a rebuttal or potentially angry retort. Draft it, but then put it away for awhile and read it fresh when you’ve cooled down. (On the internet it’s never essential to respond immediately—and often it’s actually better to wait.) Edit if after review if it seems beneficial to do so when considering your goal identified in No. 1, above.

If on cold reading you realize your motivation was to get even or punish (in other words, to do something that makes you feel good by beating up on the other person) then delete or revise the draft. If you post it to get even, that makes the other guy want to get even with you, which will perpetuate an unwinnable fight, and make those reading in think that you both are insecure, immature or—even worse—a jerk.

3) Avoid “you speak” whenever possible. (I owe this insight to a comment Lyn Buchanan made years ago.)  Saying “you” personalizes a criticism, making it seem more like an attack. If you’re saying something nice, then “you” can be okay. How I use this is, for example, “There are those who think that…” or “Some people believe that…” Or “One may try to….” So, for example: “There are quite a few instructors now who have learned and teach a version of ideograms that resembles a vocabulary or ‘lexicon.’ This is problematic for a number of reasons…” etc. etc. Readers will know what you’re talking about, but there won’t be a targeted individual who feels obligated to respond to you. They may present counter arguments, but they will rarely be as personally directed as they might be—they’ll be more about ideas than persons, which is what we want. Of course, sometimes it’s not possible to avoid “you”—but use as little “you-speak” as little as possible in a debate.

4) Pare down the post/comment to which you’re responding to the most important point to rebut—and not the point that gets under your skin the most (getting under your skin is an actual tactic that a clever debater can use against you). Focus on that most important point. In most cases stick to that only. But if there are other things that also need responding to, treat them in order of decreasing importance. You can also handle each in its own separate comment or post.

5) Try to put yourself in your opponents shoes (this is the cardinal rule of intelligence work, by the way—I knew more about the Russian army than I did my own for the first half of my military career). Ask yourself:

  • Why are they saying what they’re saying or why are they pushing back?
  • How would you feel if someone said something similar to you?
  • How could someone have said that similar thing to you in a way that you might have listened to better?

If you understand why they respond the way they do, you may be able to head off a fight and actually get them to listen to you.

This, by the way, is regularly the biggest online mistake one person I know makes—and others despise him for it. He attributes the worst of all possible motives to the people he’s arguing with, and he then argues with that imaginary “straw man” he has set up. People get offended, because they rightly believe he is not only mischaracterizing their motives, but also judging them unfairly and projecting extreme attributes upon them (they feel it, even if they don’t always exactly know what he’s thinking).

6) Never forget: Your real audience is rarely the person you’re talking to. Instead, it’s those few or many who are watching from the sidelines. You likely won’t persuade the person you’re talking to. But if you are making sound arguments you are likely to persuade or at least gain sympathy from people watching from the sidelines. This is called referred listening and it is very powerful. Before you post or comment anything in an online controversy, you should always consider the impact your words may have not on the person you’re talking to, but on those who are (or will later be) listening in. They are your most important audience, so craft your words for them.

7) Be as courteous as you can, even if you’re opponent is trying to insult you—but especially so if he or she is not trying to insult you. Again—you’re playing to the audience, not your opponent. If you come across as insulting while your opponent stays calm and polite, you will absolutely lose, even if you happen to be right. On the other hand, if you come across as respectful yet firm, and your opponent is insulting or offensive, he or she will turn the audience in your favor with little effort on your part. There may be infrequent occasions when strong rebuttals are necessary. But they should be well-thought out, not made out of high emotion such as anger or disgust, still made courteously, and be very rare!

Return to the David Powell article