How often do you see this pattern emerge in some kind of online discussion?
Somebody offers up a topic.
At first there’s a little bit of respectful disagreement back and forth.
Then somebody weighs in with a more heated comment on a certain point of the discussion.
And somebody else perceives disrespect and takes them to task for it.
And then a fight breaks out.
And the whole dialogue descends into a nasty little fight fraught with name calling and accusations and copious use of the word “troll” on both sides.
Perhaps these kinds of communications might be less problematic if they were held face to face. If each participant could see a person in front of them instead of words on a screen. Able to read the body language and expression involved in delivery of the message, not just the text.
Words are the tip of the iceberg in the ways human beings communicate with each other. Big chunks of the message can get lost (or misinterpreted) without all other aspects of our communication. Like, for instance, our tone.
Tone can make a lot of difference to the way people engage with one another, regardless of what they are discussing.
My brother works for Centrelink (which handles social security payments in Australia). He isn’t anymore, but he used to be on their phone line. People would ring in with their concerns and problems relating to their social security payments and allowances, and he would be the first port of call to help them sort it out.
He told me that a lot of people would ring up swearing and ranting and sounding very aggressive. And Centrelink has a policy that allows their staff to hang up on callers who swear and abuse them. So many of his colleagues did this when confronted with abusive callers. My brother had a lot of the most “difficult” calls/callers redirected to him because he didn’t hang up on them.
He said that even though it could be pretty confronting to have somebody ranting and swearing in his ear, he learned to tune it out. Because he could still hear the distress beneath it. And that he knew what they were really saying to him was “Help me! I have a big scary problem that’s stressing me out! I don’t know what to do about it and I feel like nobody’s listening to me!!!”
So he would simply try and get the facts from them. And get to the bottom of the situation, to figure out what was needed to resolve the problem. Ignoring all the rest.
He said as soon as they had a sense that he was listening to them they would immediately calm down. And their tone would change, and they would usually be very apologetic about the way they had initially behaved towards him. All they wanted was to be heard.
I really admire my brother for being able to do that, and wish I was a lot better at doing the same thing sometimes. I mean to be, but it can be very hard.
We can probably all find ourselves carrying around our share of stuff about the way the world has treated us at times. And nobody should really have permission to be abusive towards us, not even because they have been abused themselves.
But on the other hand, there are times when people really do just need our compassion and understanding.
It’s a tough one.
Because when someone is fighting to be heard, and has the baggage of a long history of what they feel are attempts to silence their voice, their voice can tend to have a lot of fight in it. It can sound hostile and aggressive and angry.
But that can also be understandably hard for people to engage with. Somebody may well know they have every right to be angry about what they’re talking about, but it’s just a fact of life that using an angry tone may well alienate the person they’re trying to talk to. And be counterproductive to their effort to get them to listen.
Respectful communication is paramount to that. Because if either party feels disrespected by the other, the most likely outcome is that they will shut down communication, stop listening and disengage from the the conversation altogether. Which gets nobody anywhere.
A conversation is a two-way dialogue. It you want to talk and be heard in any meaningful way, and engage in productive discussion, you have to put every bit as much energy into listening as talking. Even if you don’t always like what you end up hearing.
I guess finding your voice can often be about finding a balance between communicating respectfully with your audience and yet adopting a tone that is strong enough to make yourself heard.
And I think that’s really the same challenge whether we’re talking about writing a song, a novel, a film, a blog, or even a message or comment as part of a discussion on a forum of some kind, or Facebook or Twitter.
Our tone is a big factor for people in deciding whether or not they will listen to us, and engage on any level with what we have to say.
So, if that’s what we really want from them, it requires our most careful consideration.