Why No One is Listening to You

Mom’s advice is still true

I have a little rule that I rarely break: never read the comments. In general, I find online discussions and online reviews of products and services routinely devolve into ugly comments and hyperbole. In a world where everyone can broadcast to the planet, many of us believe we have to exaggerate to be heard. I’m here to tell you that’s a false premise.  If you feel like no one is listening to you, I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case.

When I first began blogging, there were no social media platforms. Then came Plurk, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumbler, Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp, and on and on. Naively, I signed up for many platforms and participated in many discussions online. The problem, of course, is obvious. If you write online or participate in discussions online, sooner or later you’re going to make someone upset. Maturity has given me some perspective on how to constructively engage online, and one of the key lessons I learned is to avoid hyperbole.

Clickbait and Fake News

I know I don’t have to tell you that headlines and ads constantly use misleading or even salacious headlines to get your attention online. We’re at the point now where people don’t trust websites that don’t already tell them what they “know” is true. During the 2016 election cycle, we learned about “fake news” –  websites produced by pranksters, political hacks, nutjobs, and foreign agents designed to appear like legitimate news outlets. The term has become entangled with “propaganda” – which uses hyperbole extensively – but true “fake news” isn’t reporting or editorial slants we don’t like, it’s fiction or at least mostly fiction.

It’s important to separate editorial approach and truth. Just ‘cause a given news story, or blog post, conflicts with your view of the world doesn’t make it factually incorrect.  More importantly, I hope we’ve also learned to research a little before re-sharing something on social media.

Tribal Communication

One of the interesting things I’ve become aware of is how hermetically sealed almost everyone is in their own echo chambers. When people do venture away from their tribes, the language others use is so foreign to them, it’s difficult to have a discussion. When we can’t agree on the definitions of basic terms, like ‘person’ and ‘crime’, then arriving at any sort of mutual agreement is ne’r impossible. I have many examples, but here’s a benign (non-political) one.

Years ago and fresh from my master’s program in national resource strategy, I was steeped in the language of policymaking and economics. When someone was decrying fiscal policy of the then Administration and cited some incorrect facts, I thought I’d provide some help by dropping some economic knowledge on them. I used the term, “economic shock” which is a technical term for a, well, shock to the economy, in this case, the Great Recession of 2008. A person in the conversation was incensed that I would use such a “mild” term to describe something that was so devastating to her personally. I was speaking with my own “tribal language” with a blind spot on how others might hear it.

The same can be true with in-person discussions. It’s obvious when we see people from opposite political views talk to each other – they seem to be speaking completely different languages sometimes. When we make a word mean what we want it to mean rather than using the common or dictionary definition, then we’re only speaking to our own tribe. Go read the comments about news stories about almost anything and you’ll see what I mean.

Primary Sources, Please

It’s certainly not 100% successful, but choosing to use primary sources to educate yourself on the facts can help dial the emotion down a bit, and increase your chances of making your point. People are much more likely to listen when you start a sentence with, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported…” or “according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis…” rather than, “Actually, the answer is…”, or worse, “You’re an idiot…”.

Most often, a 5-second internet search is sufficient to prove/disprove a given assertion. Interestingly, the perspective of spending 5 minutes skimming a couple of articles (don’t forget: primary sources) is enough to move the argument to a discussion.

Be Prepared to “Disagree Agreeably”

Look, there are some people who you will never win over to your cause. You can improve your chances by being respectful, supporting your assertions with facts from reputable sources, and making a compelling case. However, there are some who will never find your case convincing. That’s OK, let it be. If you believe strongly about something, then support organizations that advocate for your issue. Educate yourself about the issues and opposing views. And for Pete’s sake exercise your freedom to vote. But when you can’t win someone over, let it be. Bringing drama or anger into yours or someone else’s life is only going to make yours worse.

For 34 years I wore the uniform of my country, and for 30 of those years I served alongside some of the finest people I will ever know. We did that job because we love our country. Honestly, I never cared much about who my fellow Airmen voted for, what they looked like, or whether or not they went to church, or who they dated. All that mattered, in the end, was our shared mission. I wish the rest of my countrymen could share the same view. If you’d like people to listen to you, then be the kind of person others are willing to listen to. The bottom line is this: if you love your country, then at least try to love Americans, too.



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