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An Exercise in Empathy for Social Media Use

March 21, 2018

social media logosI worry about the world we are handing over to our children. While I am constantly amazed at the level of technological savvy our kids possess, I am also very grateful that I did not grow up in the age of social media.

I see the constant stream of opinion being shared, unfettered, across platforms and it makes me question the value of these platforms with regard to humanity. On the surface, they are wonderful bridges that can connect us more than we ever thought possible. Each social media platform offers the freedom to share all opinions without censorship. This freedom to share brings wonderful potential to previously unheard groups of people, which is an amazing feat.

Unfortunately, it also means that nothing is held back. Nothing is censored. Nothing is safely out of range of the hearer or reader. And, unlike spoken words, once hurtful insults or barbs are put in black and white, they retain their sting far longer than passionate discourse spoken in the same room.

Humans have been arguing and disagreeing since the dawn of time. But before the age of the internet, email and social media, the ability to share your thoughts publicly in writing was rare. When we had arguments, it typically meant that we were in the same room with the person with whom we disagreed. Simply being physically present meant that there was likely some previous level of trust or shared experience that laid a foundation of relationship before an argument.

Now, behind the shield of an electronic screen, we fling our verbal barbs without building that foundation of trust first. Our discord is no longer resting on anything solid, and our negativity is the only part of ourselves we are choosing to share online.

Most of the people I encounter in person and in social media happen to be parents. It’s where I am in my life that brings me into these circles. I know that just about every single parent I encounter shares the hope that we are teaching our children first and foremost to be kind. Yet, I think we as parents are doing a poor job of modeling HOW to be kind in our own behaviors on social media.

It is my hope that, by taking a few steps back and re-teaching ourselves how to practice empathetic behaviors online, that it might remind us of the power of our written words. And hopefully, it will help us to choose which words to share publicly and which to refrain from sharing in black and white.

We have all heard the adage, “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” That is basis of empathy. Empathy is the ability to be able to understand how someone else feels. So this is an exercise in three parts to help us remember how to practice empathy in the age of social media. Think of it as first putting on socks, then shoes, then going for that long walk as the person with whom you disagree.

Exercise in Empathy #1 — Basic Observations

I refer to this as the toddler level of empathy because it reminds me of when I used to force my children to make up after a disagreement. They each did it begrudgingly, only because they had to, in order to end their punishment. As adults, we’re not much different. Empathy is a skill that needs to be practiced before it can become habit. So we start small. Slip on the socks of the person you target. Observe and comment only on decisions, actions or behaviors.

Read through your recent online posts. Whether these are original posts or something in a comment string, read what you wrote about a recent decision or event that made you unhappy enough that you just had to post about it. It’s easiest to start small, so find something small.  Maybe it’s a recent decision a superintendent made to call a snow day or not. Perhaps it’s a teacher who handled something unsatisfactorily with your child. Maybe you posted about an annoying person you see on the train every day.

Choose one of your recent negative posts or comments and, publicly write three positive statements about decisions, actions or behaviors that person or group of people has done. If you find yourself complaining about the management of a store you frequent, write three things you think the management does well. If your gripe is with a school district, publicly share three things you are pleased with about the district.

This is the most basic level of empathy, looking at another’s actions or behaviors, and recognizing that not everything is bad. Do not allow yourself to post another negative comment until you are capable of recognizing and publicly sharing these three positive observations.

Exercise in Empathy #2 — Imagine Others’ Feelings

This level is much harder to do. I think of this as the adolescent phase of learning empathy. This is where I see most of our teenagers struggling because they tend to feel so much, so strongly, that it can be hard to see clearly past their own emotions. Too often in social media discourse, we all let the adrenaline of an online disagreement feed our emotional response with negativity. Perhaps this act of trying on another’s shoes can help us curb that knee-jerk reaction.

When we have had negative experiences with a person or group of people, we tend to paint them with a “THEM” brush and draw a mental barrier between the US and THEM sides. Because of our past disagreements, we see every action or decision made as something else to add as fodder to our vision of THEM. We fan the flames of disagreement online by sharing each and every aspect of our negative opinion. It’s human nature to try to justify our opinions as right, but often we are simply coloring every act as OTHER because our only experience with that person or group has been negative.

Look back at your social media feed and find your own pattern of THEM commentary. If you see that you have shared your negative views of the same person or group multiple times, that is your pattern. This time, reread the strings of negative commentary AS IF YOU WERE THE TARGET OF THE DISCOURSE.

Read the comments and force yourself to FEEL how those comments affect you. Insults hurt. When a group of people get together on a negative comment string or chat tangent, the negativity comes through as barbs that not only hurt, but can cause lasting scars. For each of your negative comments, about a target with whom you have noticed a pattern, publicly share three personality traits, talents or accomplishments that you admire about that person or group.

This is not always easy. If possible, admit to yourself that you wish you were more like your target in three meaningful ways. We all have room to grow and we each are riddled with imperfections. While no one wants to admit that our personal THEM is better than we are in any facet, this exercise forces us to truly open our minds and hearts to try to fully see someone else in a more positive light. We still may disagree with the majority of the things they do, and we still may inherently dislike someone. However, by identifying larger admirable qualities in our “other,” we see them as a fellow human or group of humans, rather than just some separate entity. Hopefully, by practicing this exercise, it will help us to soften our social media commentary.

Exercise in Empathy #3 — Engage in Person and Discover the Why

This is where we all still struggle. Some find it easier than others to do this on a daily basis. If we all could practice at this level of empathy every day, it would be an amazing thing. We all have good and bad days, but whether in person or across social media, if we can act at this level of empathy, we can start seeing each other as humans rather than as “others.”

Armchair quarterbacking will never go away. People like to observe others and claim that they could have done it better. Truthfully, though, hindsight is always clearer and each leader, coach, or person in authority brings their own unique history, personality and perspective to each situation.

If we can look at our social media selves honestly, perhaps we might recognize our own patterns of oversharing. If every post or comment is a negative swipe at the same person or group of people, maybe it’s time to engage with that person or group in some productive manner in an effort to understand why they make the decisions they do.

If you are frustrated with your local school district, volunteer through the PTA to help run events. Do more than just show up to help at certain events, but really delve in and get involved. Chair committees, attend meetings regularly, and engage in person-to-person conversations whenever possible. If schedules or geography limit personal involvement, you can still take that walk in their shoes and constructively think through why they make the choices and decisions they do.

Imagine all sides of a situation. Recognize that you may not have all of the information, and put yourself through the thought-process of how this person, this group, this “other” comes to their conclusions. Who makes up the varying groups to whom they must answer? Offer the benefit of the doubt whenever possible and keep in mind that we are all imperfect humans.


Empathy is a skill. It is taught in business management and teaching schools as a tool to help deliver constructive criticism. When all commentary is negative, listeners tune out or lash out. However, when more positives are delivered than negatives, those on the receiving end are more likely to hear and accept suggestions for change. Additionally, those on the giving end tend to focus only on the most important aspects that need to be addressed, letting more minor things slide.

By actively practicing these exercises in empathy on social media, we can hopefully model for the next generation how to be kinder and more tolerant of differing viewpoints. Sharing every opinion all the time is not constructive, and can be emotionally damaging. But practicing empathy and understanding can help temper the social media minefields, encouraging more thoughtful discourse and healthier interactions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. elizabethdeangelo1979 permalink
    March 22, 2018 4:45 PM

    So so important! I often find that if I feel I must respond or share something I am feeling passionate about I type it all out in a “Note” on my phone or iPad and then I can get it out but I often wait a day to decide if I want to post it for the world to see. Usually I don’t or I will rewrite things in a nicer way with a fresh perspective and some distance. I think the biggest mistake we all make in this world of constant impersonal “connection” is to lash out immediately by putting our private negative thoughts into words and posting them uncensored.

    • March 22, 2018 4:47 PM

      So true. Love the note idea as a productive way to get it all out, but hold onto it for later review. Great idea!

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