Contributing columnist

Megan Phelps-Roper protests during a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in 2010. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Megan Phelps-Roper vividly remembers standing in a picket line on a Kansas street corner as a blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked 5-year-old, “my tiny fists clutching a sign that I couldn’t read yet.”

“Gays are worthy of death,” read the placard.

It’s not a proud memory for Phelps-Roper, who attended many such pickets as a child, usually surrounded by her large family. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because her grandfather was the late Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, which is best known for picketing military funerals, claiming that the deceased service members had been killed because of our nation’s acceptance of gay rights.

In her 20s, Phelps-Roper abruptly divorced her family and stopped picketing.

In an extraordinary new TED talk, Phelps’s granddaughter explains that she owes her transformation to, yes, Twitter. Strangers would send her messages filled with “rage and scorn,” she says, but she started responding with cute smiley faces, pop culture references and Bible verses. With her angry critics caught off guard, she told a rapt audience in New York, “conversations would ensue — and it was civil.” Her experience is a powerful lesson for us all in these confrontational times, showing us how to deflect and deflate the vitriol — and find a way to communicate effectively with our most fervent opponents.

Phelps-Roper didn’t necessarily change the opinions of her Twitter adversaries, she admits, but talking to them in a new way certainly changed her, as she realized that she could no longer justify her actions with Westboro Baptist. She and her sister Grace departed from the church, severed their family ties and penned a public apology.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been conducting a similar experiment in what I’ll call “respectful engagement.” Instead of ignoring the emails and tweets that eviscerate or ridicule, I’ve taken to writing my “Dear Mary” or “Dear Larry” responses. Addressing my critics by name, I write back and ask — in a friendly manner — if they could communicate with me in the same way, keeping to the issues and avoiding personal attacks. I tell them more about me than what they know — that I’m a journalist, a.k.a. #enemyofthepeople. I’m also a son, a brother, an uncle and a husband — actually not so dissimilar from letter writers who once referred to me derisively as a “snowflake” or a “political correctness junkie.” Kindness and respect beget more of the same, and open up the possibility for metamorphosis.

Coincidentally, it was a Washington Post column I wrote about the death of Phelps in 2014 that had this transformative effect on me. A few days after the column was published, I received an email from Lt. Michael Wish, a Marine who could not possibly be more different from me. Wish is straight, pro-gun and a red-state libertarian.

In the first of many emails, Wish — writing from Afghanistan — astounded me with what he said. “If I were not deployed at the moment,” he wrote, “I would love to be at [Phelps’s] funeral, in my dress uniform, holding a sign that says, ‘It was my honor to defend your 1st Amendment Rights.’ I would hope that an act like that, maybe with other loving messages from the LGBT community, might convince the remainder of Phelps’s flock of the error of their ways.”

In the years since then, Wish’s thoughtful and provocative emails have greatly affected my own thinking on many issues — from guns to national security — and demonstrated how each of us has the capacity to listen, to process, and to learn.

Take for instance my view of what it means to be a Marine. After having long dismissed “jarheads” as unthinking, just-following-orders brutes, I came to realize that I was just as biased as those who made incorrect assumptions about me or LGBT folks. I’m grateful to Wish for making the effort to reveal himself, and in the process help me become a better person.

The importance of connecting and disclosing also came through loud and clear at Phelps-Roper’s TED talk in New York last month, and she left her audience with four important takeaways:

Don’t assume ill intent. Get past that first wave of anger or judgment and remember that the other person is “a human being with a lifetime●of experience that shaped their mind.”

Ask questions. Accusations lead nowhere. Honest questions tell someone that you’re interested, and even more important, that they’re being heard.

Stay calm. We know when we’re not. Raised voices. Interruptions. Fingers pointed. ALL CAPS. Dial down the volume, tell a joke, smile.

Make your case. If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to educate them, and that takes work.

Or, as my now-favorite jarhead, I mean Marine, wrote: “I’d like to express my appreciation for your time and thank you for your consideration of my thoughts and experiences.” The captain (he’s since been promoted) and I are still very different, but we’re now speaking the same language and building an important bridge. For a former Westboro Baptist picketer, a tough-guy Marine and a gay advice columnist to be on the same page. . . . Well, we just might be making progress.

Kudos to Yelp for its new gender-neutral bathroom filter

A week ago, Yelp, the crowd-sourced review service, made it possible for users to search for restaurants and hotels by the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms. For transgender people looking for safe restrooms and often reporting just how difficult it is to find one, this is a huge step forward in the right to pee in peace.

Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.

Reach the author on Facebook at and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at on March 21 at 1 p.m.