This past week I forgot my first rule of Internet engagement: Understand and 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 they’re in the minority. Most people on Twitter and Facebook simply 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.
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. No, really. Stop snorting. Its been years since I donned flame retardent clothing and jumped into the fray shouting “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” For the past few years I’ve been more interested in convincing people through reasoned argument than being “witty” and “clever” 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 that creeps in. When you focus that excitement through an ADHD lens, you create a visceral intensity that powers words even across the ether. It leads people to think I’m angry or hostile when I’m not. 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 flying fingers of fearless focus!
My first rule of Internet engagement is there to protect me as much as the people I engage with. Firstly, it protects me from getting carelessly embroiled in a heated debate as they shoot me, the messenger. Secondly, it helps me be a better person. 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 the other day over an issue, I didn’t keep the rule in mind. Consequently, she didn’t see my reasons or facts. She just assumed I was angry and didn’t respect her opinion. Now, I didn’t use harsh or insulting language, but I did respond in a four paragraphs to one ratio. There may have even been exclamations involved. I began to have a suspicion the day afterwards that something was amiss. I wrote the first version of this blog where I realized I owed her an apology, but before I could post it, she sent me a private message showing me that she couldn’t have misunderstood me more if I had written in pig latin then rot-thirteened it. Clearly, her feelings were running high when she read my reply. Yet I can also see where my approach definitely should have been softened. There was too much exuberance & indignation. I was caught up in the excitement of the debate. In her first public reply, she clearly misunderstood my intensity as anger, yet I didn’t take a breather and apply that first rule. I wrote more instead. Consequently, she feared future clashes and blocked me. Twenty years of friendship gone in a hail of clattering keys.
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. Time and again we open our mouths to “help” wayward minds get back onto the path of 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 for you 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.
It is been a while since I have burned a relationship because I lost control of my ADHD. I’ve become better at avoiding these sorts of conflicts over the years. I suppose I was overdue. Despite her own exuberance and unintentionally insulting tone, if I had only stopped myself to learn how sensitive the subject was for her, I probably would have handled things better. This probably means I 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. It’s the only way I’ve found that keeps this darling ADHD attribute in check.
(This article has been edited for brevity. It meandered like a mountain stream, and was twice as long.)