Speak to Be Heard (Not to Win)

I just read Quinn Norton‘s excellent piece, Ahimsa Online and it got me thinking about arguing on the internet, and in my day-to-day.

About ten years ago, this was my life:

P1: Are you coming to Bed? P2: I can't. This is important. P1: What? P2: Someone is WRONG on the internet.
XKCD’s Duty Calls, by Randall Munroe

It didn’t matter what the problem was. Was it a political debate on Facebook? I had to dig up some sources that proved indisputably that I was right and they were wrong.

It wasn’t a great time for me, and I doubt it was a great time for people interacting with me.

It didn’t matter that I was right (and obviously, I was! Probably…) or that in the face of substantiated contrary evidence, I was happy to relinquish my opposing view – strong opinions weakly held, right? What mattered was that I was fighting the good fight, getting the truth out and quashing negative views.

Except that I wasn’t. I was pushing my agenda, with carefully selected citations, and trying to change minds.

A comic depicting a Pro Skub and Anti Skub side. They fight and are joined by others pro and anti. Skub is revealed to be an unknown substance in a jar, demonstrating that it does not matter what skub is: someone will fight over it.
Perry Bible Fellowship’s Skub, by Nicholas Gurewitch

Years later, I’ve adopted a different stance.

In discussions about what’s the best technology to use, I find myself asking questions rather than shooting down options. “Why do you want to build your own HTTP client instead of using an open source library?”

When a remark is met with “That seems like a terrible idea,” I ask for clarification. (Spoiler alert: it’s usually not a terrible idea, but I didn’t articulate something effectively enough)

Sometimes, this is tough. Sometimes I step on a land mine, and all I want to do is argue. Quinn Norton’s piece has an excellent message when you’re feeling that way:

My rule is this: never internet angry. If you are angry, internet later.

I’d like to modify that message slightly:

My rule is this: communicate in a way that can be received. If you can’t do that, try again later.

If I’m in a meeting and my anger is interfering with my ability to communicate, I’ll go back to my desk, take a few breaths, and figure out how to best resolve the situation. It’s rare that a decision goes from a meeting to production in the time that it takes me to walk back to my desk, so I know I have time.

If I really need to, I can go back and have a chat with someone on Facebook about why they’re wrong about [insert important issue], but that chat isn’t going to start with “You’re wrong.” It’ll start with “What leads you to that conclusion?”

It’s not about proving how right I am (and how wrong you are), it’s about me understanding your context so that my communication can be received by you.

I can’t tell you how valuable this has been to my digital life, to my work life, and to my personal life.

I can tell you that it’s working.

One thought on “Speak to Be Heard (Not to Win)

  1. Good timing and good things to remember – I found myself internetting angry yesterday – threw off a good couple of hours of my peace of mind and for zilch! The person who initiated the angry-making wasn’t interested in anyone else’s opinion – she was just out there pushing her agenda – mouth open, ears closed.

    Liked by 1 person

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