anger

Fear, Anger and Gloat – or how to deal with a communication nightmare

Being in the middle a communication nightmare is never fun, but it is an important learning experience. I am sure that most problems start with miscommunication and escalate from there.

Say something happens, that you very much disagree with. Someone says something that attacks you personally, your beliefs or a group that you very much identify you with.

This doesn’t feel good, and it starts a few other feelings. It could be anger, disgust, annoyance, helplessness, fear, embarrassment, insecurity, just to name a few. None of those are good feelings. Some can be turned to good results but most make you feel at the lowest level unproductive and at the other end utterly shattered.

Let’s take a look at the most common ones:

Fear

fear makes people to horrible things

“Fear is the mind killer” is absolute truth. People who are afraid stop contributing and are silenced. This is how totalitarian regimes work: you show yourself as all-powerful and the one to make decisions and you silence all of those who speak against you in a very public and brutal fashion. This makes everyone live in fear – citizens and enemies alike. Fear makes you feel helpless, you don’t want to speak up as you don’t want to stand out. In the worst cases you don’t want to speak out as it would punish all the ones you love. You don’t want to speak as you will feel the brunt of the loud and aggressive masses. You have input to give but you feel that it isn’t fair that because of what you stand for you get pushed into a certain group in a loggerheads scenario of black and white.

Anger

Anger can be productive. I am angry at myself to let my flat get to the state it is in now, so I am cleaning up. Anger can also be the end of any sensible discussion or dangerous. I cycle a lot in London. People cut into my lane, people push closer to me than they should. I could knock on their cars or shout at them. That would most likely get me killed as it would distract them and startle them into violent movements. Sometimes the best is to count to 10 and let it pass. Anger has an unfortunate tendency to pile up.

Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die - Buddha

Gloat

In most long communication problems sooner or later it turns out that one of the attackers isn’t without flaws and innocent either. This shouldn’t be a surprise – we’re all human. In many cases the most avid attackers of a cause are people who are just afraid of being the thing they attack. Fear again. Gloating about this is toxic. It is a game of throwing the blame back and forth that nobody can win.

What to do, what to be aware of?

Over the last few days I got many reassuring emails and messages from all sides of the debate thanking me for a less-heated stance and analysis. I am not a super-human with the patience of a saint. Instead I learned to analyse my own actions and think and reflect before throwing things out. I fail at times at this, too, but I get better and I am happy about this. The most important thing is to be aware of your effects, instead of your message.

Mistake to avoid #1: Twitter is terrible for emotionally loaded topics

loose tweets sink fleets

Twitter is awesome. I like the 140 character limit, as it makes me think before sending something away. Sadly it also allows for very short and strong messages that can turn into a ping-pong game of snark and ultimately, hatred or a grumpy “agree to disagree”.

Before you send a tweet about a sensitive subject, think about the following:

  • Tweets make great comments that can be taken out of topic by media and other people. Nobody cares about the whole thread. The juicy bit is what gets quoted. Then it is up to you to defend yourself and bring context, that only 10% (if you are lucky) of the readers will ever hear about. Instead they themselves start shouting the wrong quote.
  • Tweets are archived – of sorts and can be used against you months later. Doesn’t matter if your views changed, as you can not change the tweet it can be attributed to you. Oh yes, you can delete a tweet, but for the press this is an even better message. “$company employee showed his criticism on twitter but subsequently deleted the tweet.” is a good hint to claim your company or peer group censors you.

Mistake to avoid #2: Get bullied into giving information you don’t have

Don’t assume things. You have a brain; question them instead. One thing is simple to follow and important to understand: if you do not know something, don’t assume. It is as simple as that. You don’t know, so don’t say yes or no as you can be quoted and then it is up to you to explain yourself again. This is especially bad when your choice of guess was very wrong and you end up being put in a group you don’t want to be in. There is nothing more annoying than to be applauded by people you don’t like as you helped their cause.

People will try to bully you into taking a side, especially on Twitter. These people don’t care about insight (although that is a common trick: “hey, you are on the inside, this is amazing, I’d love to hear your ideas about this”); they want to have ammunition for attacks. “how can you say that didn’t happen or isn’t true? $x of your company said so, I can prove it here”. Don’t fall for this. Instead, turn the tables and ask questions. Repeat your questions if needed. Here are some I used:

  • Where did you get this information from? I don’t know about that and wasn’t part of this decision. Can you show me?
  • That’s an interesting topic and question, but I don’t think it can be answered here and in this format.
  • Would you like people to talk about this topic if it revolved around you without having full insight? I would feel bad about this.

Do not say “No comment”. This means you know, but you choose to or aren’t allowed to say. It is an invitation to pester you until you give out the information you’re hiding.

Mistake to avoid #3: Get scared and withhold information that is important

Be afraid of those who are out to get bad quotes, don’t be afraid of your colleagues. Unhappy silence doesn’t help – showing unity does. Talk to colleagues, talk to people who are near you and tell them about your feelings. Point out to people who you think are out of line directly and personally that they are. It is up to them to realise their mistakes and make amends, not for you to jump into the ring with them. The silent majority has important points to make, and you have the right to tell them to the loud ones.
If you are afraid of speaking out, tell people who do and ask them to bring your point of view into the mix. You don’t have to become the target, but you can be a helper to bring out the truth. Not the loudest should win.

Mozillians: This is an offer – if you have points that worry you and feel too intimidated to speak, tell me. I will keep you anonymous but do my best to tell people about your POV.

Mistake to avoid #4: Get consumed by anger

The less you respond to negative people, the more peaceful your life will become

Very angry people don’t want to find resolutions. They want to vent, they want others to feel bad so they can feel better. They want to win and silencing someone by beating them verbally into submission is a big kick for them. Avoid becoming that person. It can happen. Do not feed the trolls. My mother always said “the one who screams, is wrong”. I do know punk bands with great lyrics and messages, but on the whole, I think she is right.

What can you do?

Don’t be silent too long. Don’t wait until things blow over and then give your opinion publicly. This just drags the issues out further. Instead, help finding solutions. Be part of the healing and learning process. Simple things work:

  • Research and uncover obvious wrong messages – tell them to those who are paid to communicate for you. It is an arrow in their quiver
  • Listen to people and offer help – if someone is obviously shaken, angry or feels helpless, contact them directly and offer a sympathetic ear. You might just help someone avoiding to become a target
  • Tell people when they are destructive – personally and not in public. Don’t shout, just point out how what they said could be seen out of context and how it made you feel
  • Take breaks – it is very easy to get into a frenzy by following everything that happens and our new happy social media world is made up of this. Information is an addiction and you want more and more and more and faster and faster. The fastest moving news is bad news and the most re-iterated information is most likely wrong but sounds important. (There was a lovely part in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where one race built a spacecraft powered by bad news. It was the fastest ever, but nobody was happy when it arrived on their planet)

Be nice to each other out there, protect yourself from being misquoted and ask lots and lots of questions. If you feel attacked by someone you didn’t expect to be attacked by, tell them directly and immediately and say how it made you feel.

Human communication is 20% what we say and 80% how we say it – voice, body language, facial expression. All of this is missing online, so let’s bring it back by talking to each other rather than shouting publicly trying to get heard.

baby bat

We have two ears and one mouth, we should listen more than speak and more importantly listen all around before we do so.

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De-trolling the web: don’t post in anger

At the fluent conference last week Nicole Sullivan gave an interesting keynote called Don’t feed the trolls:

I liked this very much. We need to fight the current culture of animosity, one-upping and “winning” on the web and turn it towards a culture of nurturing each other and that values communication and agreement instead. The main techniques to do that were outlined by Nicole:

Nicole works through a few kinds of trolls, jealous trolls, the grammar nazi, the biased troll (and the trolls who look for bias where there is none) and the scary troll. She alludes to another, which I will cover here:

The accidental troll

In her talk, Nicole defines a troll:

Def. Troll – people who seek conflict

Now, I have been called a troll a few times, and it hurts me every single time. I am not a person to seek conflict – at all. I am very uncompetitive and the best way to bore me is to tell me that $x does things better than me. Good for $x. I am not $x – I can look at what $x is doing and see what I like for myself but I shouldn’t copy it as it is not me. I want to be better myself tomorrow than I am today as I am the person that is with me all the time. If you don’t compare yourself to yourself and get better you play catchup and become the “good” that is somebody else. You have your own, unique way of learning and communicating and you should hone and celebrate that. If you get home and the door closes and you are someone else then there is a problem. This is for actors and rockstars who tend to die in drug overdoses.

So how come people saw me as a troll or gave me the “Don’t be hatin” message that pretty much insults the grammar fan in me? Because I posted in anger. I was pissed off – somebody was wrong on the internet and people even applauded and quoted it. This will not do.

Cultural differences

Part of this is cultural. Europeans, especially Germans, are a direct bunch. We say it like it is. If we want something, we request it. If we don’t like something, we make it obvious without a doubt that this is the case. America, on the other hand is not like that. Everything is about not offending people – not because this is bad, but mostly because you can get sued if you do. How this works in a society that is highly competitive at the same time continuously baffles me. There can’t be any losers in any competition, just third, fourth and forty-eighth winners. This dilutes the idea of competition to the degree that people don’t take them serious any more. In Europe, not so much. A competition is something serious and to win, someone has to lose. The same applies to conversations. Meetings in the US are considered a success if everything was mentioned and nobody was affronted or feels bad coming out of them.

In Europe, the result of a meeting is what has been done and what needs to be done next by who and by which date. If that means someone got blamed for doing things wrong, that is just how it is.

Pointing out an error is not attacking the person who made that error. What it is is pointing out an opportunity to fix something. This is the end goal. A lot of people have problems admitting to failure. To me, a failure is a great opportunity to analyse what happened and making sure you don’t do it again. If that hurts, even better, as it is easier to remember for you not to do it.

With this background it is easy to affront people on mailing lists and other communication devices that lack human communication (body language, voice and so on). The problem is exacerbated when the thing that – in your book – is obviously wrong gets sold as a “best practice” and gets a jazzy marketing-ish abbreviation and people quote it all over the place. Something you consider a mistake becomes something other people strive for rather than being something to learn from by avoiding it.

Countermeasures

So here is what I do now. I channel the Fennec:

Fennec Fox

You notice that this animal is much more ear than mouth and this is what we should be doing. Instead of firing up a massive post ranting about what is wrong in a certain publication or person we should start asking questions and most of all listening. The same applies to humans: we have two ears but one mouth – let this be our ratio for learning.

So if you disagree with something and it really rails you, give it some time before you answer. Do other things, have fun with people. Then go back and write your post if you still want to. Even better, ask the right questions.

By asking for refinement and pointing out shortcomings of a solution in the form of a question you do not only bring it upon you to do better than the original solution. You also turn your anger into a chance to get the original maker to take on your refinements and make the product that angered you work better. If the original author can not answer your questions you managed to show that they made mistakes and called something a best practice prematurely. And other people listen, too. Which means that they’ll request more details and changes.

Another way of listening is to read all the other posts and comments following the thing that annoyed you. You’ll find that in a lot of cases other people will point out the flaws you see, too and you can join a conversation and maybe even soften the tone of other comments to turn them from flame to request.

All in all a lot of accidental trolling happens because we get the wrong urge to answer as fast as possible and be the first to point out a flaw and thus winning 245 internets. Letting things sink in first and listen for a while helps you write better responses, realise that some sins are not really that much of an issue and make you understand the context of what something was published in, which can be a large part of the content decisions.


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