This past week I forgot my first rule of Internet engagement: Acknowledge the other person's feelings before disagreeing with their facts. When I follow this rule, more times than not the conversation goes well, even if we ultimately disagree. Yes, there are some people who just want to see the world burn, or more specifically, see you burn, but more often than not the people of Twitter and Facebook feel just as strongly about their opinions as you do. This is why finding common ground with them before you disagree with them is so important. You want to avoid heat when possible.
People will generally assume you are their enemy if you don't recognize their feelings first. While you try to point out what you think is a fallacy in their argument, they'll assume you're defending what they're upset about. They'll slip into defensive mode and you might as well be trying to talk sense to a goldfish. Feelings are what drive people to string together facts to represent their cause. Oh, there may be many people who will claim until they are blue in the face that all their opinions are based on facts, but that lie is exposed the moment you tell them they are wrong. Point out an error or two in their facts and you'll be surprised how quickly their arguments can devolve into name calling. If you attack the facts first before acknowledging whatever they are upset about, they react as if you are invalidating their feelings. Nobody wins as fact after fact is thrown out because FEELINGS. If you're lucky, your buddies will come to your rescue so you can bludgeon them down by consensus of opinion, but then congratulations, you just became an Internet bully. Even if you fight your own battles, starting off on the wrong foot mostly ends up in a heated waste of time. After so many ideological battles on Twitter, you'd think I'd remember something like this.
So why should I care about their feelings, especially if I think they are WRONG, and what does this have to do with ADHD?
That's the other side to my first rule of Internet engagement, and it has everything to do with being considerate. We sometimes forget that our opponents are people with feelings in our zeal to claim victory. Caring about their feelings helps us behave as better people even when debating. Besides, heat and friction don't convince anybody that they should concede you have a point.
Another reason we should care is that it is tactical. You see, people generally shoot the messenger. We know this. We KNOW this, yet time and again we open our mouths to help wayward minds get back onto the path to light, then get surprised by a quiver of arrows in the face. The truth is that nobody is going to thank you for showing them publicly why they are wrong. That's a pyrrhic victory at best. After all, in these types of debates you're often the only one who thinks you're in the right. Their feelings about their facts trump your feelings about your facts. Addressing their feelings first can help diffuse this.
Unfortunately, every once in a while somebody says something that makes me stop and say, "Hold on now. That's not right." You might be thinking that this is just another example of Douglas writing about Foot-in-Mouth disease, and there certainly could be a case made for it, but I don't get into flame wars on the Internet anymore. Its been years since I donned flame retardent clothing and jumped into the fray shouting "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!" Instead, I'm more interested in convincing people through reasoned argument than with glib retorts, but I still have a serious problem with ADHD-born intensity.
While I may be feeling level headed and calm as I type the Death Star of text replies, there is a degree of excitement to debating that creeps in. Focus that excitement through an ADHD lens and you have a visceral intensity that powers words even across the ether. It leads people to think I'm angry or hostile when I'm not. Whether I blame ADHD or my mixed Italian/Irish anscestry, the end result is that both strangers and friends can sometimes feel like they are at the receiving end of a rocket-launched missle. Oh, I am holy in my righteous glory! Behold my words!
My first rule of Internet engagement is there to protect me as much as the people I engage with. I need to remember that anytime I engage people online with facts before feelings, the brevity of text and my intensity makes me seem callous and uncaring, even angry. By addressing their feelings first, I let them know I am not their enemy. They may not like me disagreeing with them, but at least they know I am not out to get them.
When I debated a friend on Facebook yesterday over an issue, I didn't keep the rule in mind. Consequently, she didn't see my reasons or facts. She assumed I was angry. I didn't use harsh language, but I did respond with four paragraphs to her one. There may have been exclamations involved. My instincts tell me now that something is amiss—that there was something under the surface that I ran roughshod over. That's why I've been thinking hard about that first rule that I didn't heed.
ADHD intensity is a wonderful tool when engaged constructively, but without structure, the intensity can burn in people's faces like a blazing comet. Curiously, not a lot of people like bright flares of glory in their face. Go figure. Should I apologize? Well, I've reread what I've written over and over again, and I can see the points I am making are valid. I stated my case passionately and backed it up with examples, I didn't hurl insults, I didn't impugn her intelligence, and I didn't lose my temper. Yet I can also see where my approach definitely should have been softened. There was too much exuberance and indignation. She clearly misunderstood my intensity as anger, yet I didn't take a breather and apply that first rule. I wrote more instead.
Yes, I'll apologize for my intensity and accidental insensitivity. Regardless of whether she was right or wrong, I came on too strong. I'll also write that first rule of Internet engagement onto weighted gloves and make myself wear them to avoid flying fingers of fearless focus in the future.
Update: I wrote that entry on Sunday. I set it aside to rethink the ending.I thought maybe it was a bit too cheeky, but by the end of the day I discovered that my friend of twenty years had blocked me on Facebook and unfollowed me on Twitter. My instincts were correct. Too bad I hadn't noticed them the day before.
She sent me a long private message explaining her decision. It let me know that there was something under the surface as I suspected far too late, but it also showed that she completely misconstrued where I was coming from, assumed I was part of the problem that she was upset about, made assumptions about my intent, and then set the bridge between us ablaze. I was left stunned and disappointed. It was too late to apologize for intensity. She'd never believe me now. I thought after so many years she knew me better, but my exuberance in battle cost me an ally.
Is it fair? No. She was guilty of exuberance, too. However, by not seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, I allowed my intensity to flare brightly in "holy" glory. That's why I have the rule in the first place—to prevent these sort of problems. I am an excitable person. I get passionate and worked up over things I believe in. I'm not so different than most people, yet the frequency of the intensity is what makes it a hallmark of ADHD. Is this what cost me my marriage? No, that relationship was fraught with complexities far beyond ADHD. However, my ADHD-born intensity certainly didn't help. I have to be responsible for keeping myself in check, even if I feel I am in the right. Besides, what good is winning a battle at the cost of a relationship?
It is been a while since I have burned a relationship because I lost control of my ADHD for a moment—over a decade at least if not longer. There are some things that experience teaches us. Alas, I have more to learn. I certainly would forgive her over this incident, but would she be willing to forgive me now that she blames me for things that I wasn't thinking or feeling? It's not like sending her a letter with a line by line rebuttal is going to fix matters. Nor would calling her help. I'll just have to wait until she reaches out to me, and be prepared for that never to happen. Dang, I probably won't be getting one of her funny Christmas cards this year. I'll have to comfort myself by finishing a book she gifted me only a few months ago, and recommit to acknowledging the other person's feelings before disagreeing with their facts.
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