Faith online: Nonviolent communication and cultivating empathy

Photo courtesy of Katie Leigh Photography

We are a plugged-in society, and that’s not changing. Increasingly, our interaction is happening primarily through social media. In so many ways this is fantastic — our networks are bigger, we can stay in touch with so many people. But as communication and relationships shift to the digital sphere, how do integrate our real lives and online selves? How does faith inform our presence and interaction online? We’ll be exploring these ideas and more over the next few weeks.

Alyssa Bennett Smith served as web and social media content manager for Mennonite Church USA from October 2014 until September 2017. She studied Peace and Conflict Transformation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, where she graduated in 2015 with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. She has spent the last year studying, writing and presenting about the use of nonviolent communication practices on the internet. Alyssa now works as director of operations at Art from Ashes, a youth empowerment nonprofit in Denver, Colorado, where she lives with her husband Joshua and their three cats. 

I’ve spent the last three years moderating comments from around Mennonite Church USA on social media and the denominational blog. Those three years have included a lot of hard conversations. So many situations required me to have patience, courage, grace and understanding — but I haven’t seen a lot of that online.

Based on my experience, despite being a peace church and a people of nonviolence, there is not a lot of nonviolent communication happening in our Mennonite digital spheres.

I have seen people call one another names and been called names myself for trying to steer the conversation to a more productive place. I have had my faith called into question and watched commenters do the same to one another. These painful words came from all ends of every imaginable ideological and theological spectrum. For a long time, these experiences were a source of deep hurt between me and the church that I love.

In addition to my work with Mennonite Church USA, I also have a background in conflict transformation and nonviolent communication. In the last few years, I’ve started to think about the ways in which those practices might be employed digitally. Turns out — it’s really hard. The key to nonviolent communication is empathy, for oneself and for the other person. Empathy is not something that is easily cultivated in a digital environment (like Facebook) that doesn’t force you to deal with the consequences of your words. When you leave a comment online, you don’t see how it impacts the reader, so (unless you go out of your way to do so) you don’t ever have to think about how you made that person feel. You don’t even have to consider that they exist.

This echo chamber cultivates a type of thoughtless and often hurtful communication that is in direct opposition to Christ-centered and Anabaptist values. We’re called to love our neighbor and strive to live in healthy community with one another. And if we carry these values over to our online communication and begin to examine our interactions more carefully, we’ll begin to see just how much work we have to do (myself included).

We must learn to talk with one another in more empathetic ways. We don’t have to agree or even understand one another, but we do need to acknowledge the humanity in one another before we hit “enter” on our comments.

To help us do this, I’ve come up with a few simple steps to try when communicating online.

  • Reframe:

When you read something online that bothers you or makes you feel the need to defend yourself, first ask: What are the reasons this person would have said this? or Why is their statement bothersome?

  • Separate:

Remember that this person did not necessarily post this with you in mind. Might the post /topic be deeply personal to you? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that they thought of you specifically when the posted it, or even considered that you would see it. If they had thought specifically about you, maybe they wouldn’t have said what they did or phrased it in such a hurtful way. Either way, it is safe to assume that in most cases, when we are offended on the internet, it was not the goal of the poster to do so.

  • Question:

Instead of immediately jumping on the offensive, ask a question. You still might not agree with the person on the other side of the screen, and you might be hurt, but beginning a conversation with a question helps the other person enter into a true dialogue rather than a debate. When you both are coming from a non-defensive place of humility, the exchange can be more productive. You might actually reach a conclusion together that helps you learn a bit about one another or how to better be in relationship with each other, instead of having a heated online argument that never actually gets anywhere, because you both are too concerned with proving the other person wrong.

I’m not saying that we should not stand up for what we believe is right, or argue points that we believe to be truly important. My concern is with the way we argue — is our manner of interaction conducive to real conversation where we can learn from one another, or is it more likely that we will leave feeling self-righteous and in the same place we started? Let’s hope that by trying to put a little more space between our initial reactions and our comments, and a little more thought into what we say, that our conversations can be more fruitful both for our personal relationships and for our church.

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One thought on “Faith online: Nonviolent communication and cultivating empathy

  1. Why has the MCUSA adopted so many apostate doctrines? Believers should be passionate when the Word of God is being twisted or ignored. Being PC when contending for the faith does not seem to work.

    IMHO, many members of the MCUSA have stopped reading these publications because of the apparent apostasy being turned into doctrine in this denomination. When believers comment negatively to these new anti-Biblical trends – comments are not generally published. You can call it ‘steering’, but I call it censorship. You said negative comments come from taking the offensive. I believe they come from DEFENDING God’s Word against feminism, against globalism, against homosexual lifestyles and leadership, against white shame, and against a victim centered MCUSA.

    So go ahead, call me a hater, and dismiss my comment. I’m used to it. I also USED to love the Mennonite Church. But infiltrators have come in and changed it. They did it without the consent of the majority. It is a mere shadow of what it used to be and what it should be.

    Do I care about the impact this may have on the reader? Absolutely. I hope it wakes someone up. The MCUSA seems to be nothing but a wing of the liberal political party. It is hard to see a difference. For all the miles of credentials listed in most articles, why has no one studied the roots of feminism and globalism? There is a spiritual battle going on in the MCUSA. There are only two sides – God’s side and Satan’s side. Choose this day whom you will serve. Satan’s tactics are working like a charm in the MCUSA.

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