Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Think Before You Tweet

It can feel really good to call someone out when they cross a line. But if you want to accomplishing something positive, tweeting from the hip is probably the wrong way to go.

Once upon a time, when the Earth was young, all mail was snail mail, and the only way to put your thoughts in front of the masses was to persuade a newspaper to give you a column inch or two on an editorial page. In those mythical days of yore it was difficult to turn the urge to tell someone to take a long walk off of a short pier into an open letter to the world. On balance, that was probably a good thing.

Righteous indignation, instant gratification and the joys of social media – Today’s gunslingers tweet from the hip

Of course, those days have long since passed. With the newfangled interwebs and the uncontrolled sociological experiment known as social media, a visceral reaction can become an incendiary message spreading out across the globe in seconds. “He said WHAT???” can turn into the shot heard round the world long before the prefrontal cortex can even raise its hand to ask, “Are you sure about that…?”

I know about such things because I’ve been there. Over the years I’ve tossed more than my share of those grenades over the wall. I’ll admit it. Righteous indignation can feel good! I like to think that I have reined that tendency in, but the temptation can be hard to resist. After all, what are late nights on Facebook for?

Calling someone out might not be your best bet

The urge to react can be especially strong when it surrounds a larger issue that affects us directly and about which we are passionate. When something cuts close to the bone our immediate reaction can be to call someone out. We love the smell of the smoking barrel of a well-aimed Twitter post. There is also entertainment value in a good gunfight, and what better to consecrate moral high ground than the blood of a villain?

As a professional coach I talk to clients about these kinds of issues frequently. Something is said or done that gives offense or shows a lack of sensitivity, and the client is left needing to respond. Sometimes a client wants to explore ways to approach the issue. Those conversations can be very productive. But sometimes a client is looking for a way to do damage control after reacting in haste. Quite often, once you open your mouth the best you can do is break even.

Rule Number One: When you really want to hit send, don’t.

Here are a few thoughts that might be useful the next time someone or something pushes your buttons.

  • Put it in the drawer.  Just because you can send that Tweet right now doesn’t mean that you should.  Put that letter in the drawer for a night, metaphorically at least. Let the emotions die down a bit and give yourself time to consider how best to respond.
  • Discuss your reaction with a nonpartisan. You reacted strongly, but was your reaction warranted? Is there something that you are missing? Is your reaction proportional to the offense? The best way to get a reality check is to talk it over with someone before you respond. But that someone needs to not be a partisan. When partisans talk, they reinforce each other and their positions become more extreme. That is not what you need at the moment.
  • Pick your battles. It costs to call someone out. There is opportunity cost; is the inevitable back and forth really what you want to spend your next day dealing with? There is also a price to be paid in good will. How might calling the person out damage your relationship, and ultimately leave you in a worse rather than better position? By calling this person out are you raising positive awareness, or are you desensitizing your audience and casting yourself in a bad light?
  • Decide what you want to accomplish. Do you want an apology to save face? Do you want to use this as an opportunity to draw people’s attention to an issue? Are you trying to undermine someone else’s position or damage their reputation? Do you want your transgressor to feel pain? Are you using this as an opportunity to fire up the faithful? Are you trying to better establish yourself as a powerful voice? Do you want to change future behaviors or do you want to call attention to past transgressions? How do you want your transgressor to feel after your response? How do you want them to feel about you? How do you want them to feel about your cause? What change do you want to bring about?
  • Understand your audience. Who are you speaking to with your response? Are you speaking to others who already feel the same way you do about the issue? Are you using this as an example to call the attention of others to the issue? Is your audience the transgressor? A huge question here is whether your audience is inclined to be supportive or dismissive. What are their motivations, what is their perspective, what are they going to hear, and how might they react?
  • Know who you are speaking for. Are you speaking just for yourself, or are you speaking as a voice for a larger community? If the later, are you representing that community’s interests in the best way possible? Are you showing the right amount of restraint? The more composed and professional you are, the more authority you will be granted and the more likely people are to give your concerns serious consideration. If you let your emotions show through, you may be compromising your community as well as yourself.
  • Choose a strategy. Sometimes calling someone out and demanding an apology is the right thing to do. Then when they don’t apologize correctly, take them to task for that, too! There are times when guerilla warfare is called for. I certainly have my own personal list of people and organizations I would be happy to burn in effigy. But depending on your answers to the questions above, calling someone out might not be the best way to go.
  • Coordinate. If there are others speaking out about the same issue, talk to each other about what you are going to say. There is a reason why political parties, cable news channels and the like have talking points. The rule of thumb is that people have to encounter an idea seven times before it really sinks in. Coordination and focus help drive a message home.
  • Don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve. If you want to be taken seriously, don’t make it about you and your hurt feelings. It weakens your position. Besides, if you want to foster a real conversation about an issue, the last thing that you need is for people to be tiptoeing around over ground that is ankle deep in eggshells.
  • Don’t get personal. The quickest way to lose the moral high ground is to make the other person look like a victim. The quickest way to do that is to resort to ad hominem attacks. Remember that your transgressor is a real person who also has feelings. And remember that you aren’t perfect yourself.
  • Don’t fall victim to the same errors as your transgressor. Showing insensitivity to issues of importance to your transgressor or your broader audience or belittling their own concerns is another surefire way to surrender the high ground.
  • Get feedback before you post. Hopefully you have already asked someone what they think about the original transgression and about your own reactions. Now ask them for their take on your strategy and the response you have crafted. Again, this person should not be a partisan! I can’t emphasize that strongly enough. You need to know how someone who sees this in a different context will respond.
  • Contact your transgressor privately!

I saved the most important thing for last. Suppose that you want to use another’s faux pas to call attention to an issue in a way that will bring awareness, support and action. Then the best possible outcome, by far and bar none, is if you can turn your transgressor into a friend and collaborator. This is especially true if the original transgression was not ill intended, or if you know or have some relationship with the transgressor.

If your transgressor crossed the line just by being clumsy, or because they didn’t understand where the line was in the first place, there is a pretty good chance that they will feel bad about it when you point it out. There is no need to put them on the defensive by shaming them in public. Even if you don’t make them an enemy outright, you have certainly made any future interactions you might have more uncomfortable and probably less productive.

What might happen if you approached them calmly and in private? Instead of attacking them, let them know what the issue is and why you think it worth raising. The more personal you can make the contact, the better. Don’t just email; pick up the phone. Or don’t just call; knock on their office door. Invite them out for a drink. And when you do, have your own feelings in check. Given a chance, they will probably be on your side, and if so might be willing to help you orchestrate a response.

I might even encourage you to let your transgressor take ownership of the blunder and how to make it right. What if instead of putting your transgressor on the defensive, you instead gave them a chance to initiate the ensuing conversation? What if instead of demanding an apology, you invited your transgressor to become a proactive voice? Consider two scenarios from the perspective of the public:

 

Twitter Conversation 1:

You: So-and-so, you crossed a line! That really was grossly insensitive!

So-and-so: Hey! Look. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give offense. Really. My bad. I took it down. OK?

You: If you are going to apologize, at least sound like you mean it!

The Masses: You go!

More of The Masses: What are you on about, anyway? Geeze.

 

Twitter Conversation 2, after some private backstage conversation:

So-and-so: Without really thinking about it, I crossed a line the other day. This stuff matters, and I should have known better.

You: I’d like to thank So-and-so for being so stand-up. People are sensitive about this because it affects their lives. Here are some thoughts…

The Masses (hopefully): You are right, this does matter.

 

There are no guarantees that this will work, but if it does everybody wins. Even if it doesn’t, your own claim to the high ground will be stronger. And So-and-so will be an even better target when you call them out later! 😉

Thoughtful Choices

There are lots of ways to show insensitivity. It might be what someone says, or leaves unsaid. It might be what they wear. It might be who they invite or who or what they leave out. It might be a decision that they make. The list of ways to give offense is endless. Even people of good intention cross those lines. It is unfortunate when that happens, but it can also be an opportunity to bring positive attention to an issue that you care about. How you use that opportunity is up to you, but the choice is worthy of some thought.

Think Before You Tweet  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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