This is a story of how I lost my cool, re-found my centre and spent some time reflecting on the harm that social media can do to our relationships and our emotional well-being. The whole journey happened because of some posts on Facebook.
I’m writing this blog in a different story telling order than usual; starting with lessons and insights for future interactions, then back to what happened, and then a bit about the past and why it matters.
PART 1: Lessons and insights for future social media interactions
I had some challenging interactions on Facebook recently based on a promotion I ran for some training. Ironically, the training was for strategies to deal with public outrage and opposition. (More details on what actually happened in Part 2.) When I finally came up for air and worked through what I could learn from this situation a couple of insights rose to the surface.
SEE AND BE SEEN — We all have a built in need to be seen. It’s the essence of love; to be fully seen and accepted as you are. When we aren’t seen or accepted it hurts, makes us vulnerable and wounded, and it makes some people angry as well. Social media is about “connections” but the connections run miles wide and skin deep, where we see people mostly at their best based on the image they want to present to the world, or where we have no real relationship with them and therefore no sense of who they really are. When we interact with people on these platforms we only see pieces of them, which can lead quickly to assumptions, judgments and shame and blame. Take a look at your “friends” on Facebook — how many of them do you have a real relationship with? How many would you call in a crisis, to share a hardship or sadness, or to celebrate an achievement? When our relationships are shallow we aren’t fully seen, and the harshness of criticism, blame or shame can come across louder and more intense than with those we have real relationships and intimacy. Choose your friends wisely, and invest real time and energy in the relationships that are a mile deep.
WINNERS AND LOSERS — We live in a world where the media, politics, work environments and society are framed in terms of harsh competition where winners gain and losers decline. You win an election over an opponent, you get a job over another candidate, your community gets a recreation centre or new school and another community doesn’t because there is only so much funding to go around….you get the picture. Those who “win” are positioned for future benefits because they now hold advantaged position, and the cycle goes on. This pattern can extend to our social interactions, particularly on social media where many of our relationships are shallow. Think about how quickly a video, tweet or post can go viral. Little thought or reflection is required to make that happen, just a quick “jump on the bandwagon” with no consequences or impacts. We make these seemingly simple choices to “like” something without seeing the whole picture, asking tough questions or understanding the impacts on the individual in question or the conversation overall. I see it in myself, and I see it in the space over and over again — this quick reactivity and jump to judgment where we assume that the one post, quote or situation makes up the entirety of a human being or experience. As if it is right to judge someone solely on one act and condemn them as bad, wrong or undeserving and move right to shame and blame. Aren’t we all human? Don’t we all err? Wouldn’t you want to be judged on the whole of your actions versus one moment in time and be seen fully as a human being? When we jump to condemnation we dehumanize each other and create a divide between us. The conversation becomes one of “you are with me or you are against me” and then we all lose because there is nothing to talk about from there. I’m going to start curating my “likes”, start reflecting before I comment, retweet or contribute to things where there are winners and losers. I hope you do too.
GENEROSITY AND BOUNDARIES — A balance of generosity and boundaries has frequently been my response when I’m asked how to handle the anger, vitriol and righteous indignation sometimes thrown my way in a tough conversation. I continue to stand by that perspective and I want to nuance it further on the boundaries side of the equation. When I approach the person or the situation with generosity I am closer to compassion, to holding the space for the emotion they bring to the issue that matters so much to them in the hopes that will serve them so we can have a constructive conversation where I can really understand what is driving their reaction. My generosity tends to be pretty big when it comes to those moments, reflecting on where the anger, hate, fear or frustration is and knowing that this really matters to the people at hand. When it comes to boundaries I often focus on two: respect and civil discourse. Respect for all — others in the room, myself, the organization. We don’t have to agree or like each other but if we are treating each other as human beings we’ll get further in our conversation. So I intervene and ask for respect.
When it comes to civil discourse I think it comes down to integrity — no matter how heated the issue is, the way we talk together matters. We can’t find a solution if there isn’t fairness, equity or inclusion in the conversation. If I don’t stand for both the right and the responsibility to participate in civil discourse then what is my role? I’m responsible for advocating, encouraging, inspiring and holding the space for civil discourse so we can all talk together, and when it doesn’t happen I need to own my own responsibility for that, and also put a hard stop to the conversation when that is no longer happening. That means making choices for myself that allow me to be in those conversations, or to tap out of them when I can’t be in them with integrity. I tapped out of the Facebook conversation in this case by blocking the commenter on my Facebook page and I continue to be mixed about that choice. Could I have done more to promote a real conversation? I’m not sure but I think the fact that I’m wondering about it tells me the answer is yes. My hope is we all try one more time for civil discourse when we want to quit, and see where it takes us.
IT STARTS WITH YOU — More than ever I am certain that what you stand for matters. We all have the potential to be leaders, and to lead brave, honest conversations and we can do that when we know why we are motivated to be in that conversation. Is it because you are committed to solving the challenge? Is it because you believe better solutions will result? Are you motivated by connection and inclusion? Is it because you hold the values of courage and compassion? It could be all those things. You have to BELIEVE in the conversation and the people in it for it to work. Your choices in that conversation either result in deeper understanding, respect, agreement where things are shared or agreement to disagree where things are different, and the shared experience that together you are stronger than apart. Or your choices result in something different. You won’t always get it right. There is no magic wand or fairy dust for brave, honest conversations. No matter how many times I get asked for it I know there is no special formula that makes them come out just right every time. Sometimes you won’t get it right, sometimes you will fail. This time I didn’t get it right and I walked away without trying one more time. But every day I get back up and try again because more than anything I believe that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems we face. What choices will you make to lead today? What do you stand for? How do you make that real in your life?
PART 2: So…what happened on Facebook?
I run a business called the Courageous Leadership Project where I help people show up as brave, compassionate leaders in their lives, organizations and communities so we can have brave, honest conversations about the challenges we face, together. It is not just a business, it is my values in action, every day.
That doesn’t mean I get it right every time. In fact, lots of times I get triggered, angry or just have a run of the mill bad day where I’m not courageous, compassionate or even listening to other people.
I’m offering training courses this spring in Vancouver and I decided to run a Facebook ad to promote them to spread the word and promote registrations.
It never occurred to me that promoting training on Facebook would spark outrage. Which is mistake number one.
Here is the description of the course I was promoting. The irony of the topic of the course is not lost on me.
It got almost 9,000 impressions in the week of the promotion. It also prompted this first exchange between a commenter and me.
(Note: names have been removed because I didn’t ask the commenters if I could use their identities here. Although they commented publicly for the world to see on Facebook it feels right to not just name them here without their permission. Let me know what you think about that and I may go back and add in their names. Does it matter? Does it serve a purpose? Does it support the greater good or promote civil discourse?)
- Commenter: Or maybe you’re just wrong?
- My response: You mean the organization is just wrong? Yes totally that’s absolutely possible, and part of the learning to engage with the public with a different mindset, approach and attitude. How organizations show up and interact matters, and that includes acknowledging when you’ve got it wrong.
- Commenter: I think it’s the first and most important question I’ve been on the receiving end of more than one ‘change management’ manipulation process… when in fact it became apparent, some months in, that they were just plain wrong and they were so locked in to their process, of driving onwards, of ‘getting buy in’ that they had stopped asking any questions. I am rather jaded by this I admit, but if you have active in the street protests… you may have a very serious moral / environmental issue and THAT should be your question, not messaging and communications.
- My response: Absolutely, I hear you. The first step when you’ve got opposition or outrage is to stop what you are doing and start to understand why. Not to keep pushing forward, convinced you are right and the public is wrong. Because if the public is outraged you are doing something wrong. Flat out. Messaging and communications won’t fix that, and you shouldn’t try that approach. Plus it never works anyway — people see through it. This is a course about learning to be different, to show up differently, to make different choices about your relationship with the public or stakeholders, so that in the long run you build trust. The answer is never in trying to convince, persuade or sell the public on something. It’s about acknowledging things aren’t going well, understanding why, and choosing something different. Thanks for sharing your experiences — I know how common they are. It’s time we did something different in the public arena.
- Commenter: thanks for the honest answers!
I really appreciated that exchange. I felt pretty good about it. It felt respectful, like we were both trying to understand each other and we weren’t going for agreement but for an open exchange of views and experiences. People started to follow along and like the posts between us. I’ll be brutally honest and offer that I had a moment where I was thinking to myself, “look at this, living my values in this conversation.” Yes — that is foreshadowing for the dangers of ever thinking you got things figured out.
There was a second exchange with a different commenter, who got a little more straight to the point.
- Commenter: (replying to the comments in the feed): …or, alternately, your organization’s goals are shitty, and you should get your act together. I don’t think outraged street protesters are there because your “messaging” is off about “stakeholder motivations”. Would you say there is any benefit to an organization taking your course if they have no interest in changing their goals, but just want to effectively defuse public outrage?
- My response: No. Because here is the thing — you can’t effectively defuse public outrage without being willing to change yourself. There isn’t a way that works. So change has to be possible within the organization for it to have a possible outcome where the conflict is de-escalated. This isn’t a course about managing, controlling or manipulating other people. It’s a course about finding a real way forward on high stakes, high emotion situations where both sides come together.
The exchange ended there. Some people “liked” this exchange but the commenter didn’t come back and reply again, which is totally fine. Sometimes you just want to have your say and move on.
- Commenter: Yes,I feel a lot of people could benefit from this coarse ,as long as what ever your teaching is true ???? Becoming angry is a normal reaction to what ever is going on in people, its a reflection of other emotions and those other emotions are the ones people have to understand and how and when to control them so that it doesn’t become the forefront of your thought processes to be able to work things out the right proper way. but all and all sometimes anger helps to get things done,its a good thing if its for a good purpose
- My response: Yes absolutely, great points! I always say that conflict is a signal that something needs to change. Anger is the emotion most often associated with conflict — it’s an opportunity to understand what isn’t working so it can be adjusted.
Momentum was building.
Different commenters start expressing concern that the course would result in people being manipulated or controlled when they were expressing their views.
Random comments by different people started to point an escalation and a sense of me as the representative of the “wrong” side of the issue gets expressed:
- Or, you could stop and ask yourself, why is what I’m doing making people angry? Is what I’m doing wrong?
- Look at all these people already protesting. Its an advertisement for Christ sake, on how to deal with hypothetical pylons like yourselves. See the irony here?
- Nutley and Phillips could use about a years worth of this training. By that time they will be out of office. Can you send them tickets please.
- How about just start telling the truth and stop trying to massage them into cooperating with whatever you have already decided? This patriarchal thing has gotten too far out of hand.
Remember that all of these posts are happening on my company Facebookpage — all over the course of a week. I’m equal parts curious and concerned. I didn’t enter “protesters” in the demographics for for my Facebook ad, but I’ve attracted them!
I’m also starting to feel personally attacked and like my integrity and values are in question. Of course I’m not offering a course to manipulate and coerce people out of their right to a voice or to being angry when they don’t agree with decisions! Who would do that?
I’ve got a little outrage building myself by the time Exchange #4 rolls around.
Exchange #4 — where all my buttons got pushed.
- Commenter: People protest on the street because politicians lawyers and/or big business haven’t listened and are pushing through an unpopular item. There is no compromise. I guess that’s when they hire spin Doctors like you. Us common folk call it bullshit.
- My response: Thanks for sharing your experience. As I’ve replied to others — this course isn’t about spin, and isn’t about supporting politicians or organizations to continue to do things that erode the public trust. It is about changing the way they approach decision-making so people come first. If that shifts, maybe so many protests won’t be necessary.
- Commenter: Your just trying to put a positive spin on what your trying to do. If the people come first then the unpopular project would not be put forward. Ok? If I want you to give me all your money are you suggesting if I only take half a compromise has been made? and it’s all good? If I want to build a forty story condo next to your modest house if I only build a twenty story building instead that’s a compromise and you will live happily ever after?
- Politicians and decision makers in general are bought and paid by big business. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Either they push through their sketchy get rich schemes or they don’t
- You can phrase it any which way you want but it is merely an exercise in semantics
- When selfish privileged monied goofs stop lying and cheating then maybe politicians and lawyers and all the other white collar criminals will start listening to the public. Till then honey, you just selling snake oil.
- By the way how is Hamilton these days?
- My response: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will always be in favour of people having a right to voice their views. Just like I will ALWAYS advocate for the need for civil discourse, respect and a sharing of views where we try to understand each other not blame or shame each other. Based on that, this will be my last public reply to you. I will always participate in a respectful exchange, rather than one focused on the “win” that comes through shame, blame and uncivil discourse. You know, we need to live on this planet together, all of us. I can imagine you are teaching your children how to talk to together when they disagree, and that it doesn’t look like this. We need to take the time to try to hear each other rather than shout over each other.
This is the THINKING process I went through through the course of this exchange:
- Who the hell does this guy think he is? I really don’t appreciate being accused of having no integrity by someone who has no idea who I am or what I am about.
- I need to NOT reply to this right now. I took a couple minutes to breathe.
- I asked myself “What do I stand for? What do I believe in? How do I want to show up in this conversation?”
I made a short reply to the first post. Reading my response now I can see I was defensive and also trying to be open to having a real conversation.
Then that last comment came.
And my internal reaction and dialogue went to “What the f&*#$? Don’t call me “honey” you condescending, patronizing, misogynistic jerk.” I was plain mad. I had flames coming out of my ears.
I went to the gym to work through my own anger until I could be calmer and respond to his last comment. All I could see was “honey” “spin doctor” and “Hamilton”.
While I was calmer I wasn’t peaceful when I replied. I then blocked the commenter from my page so he didn’t come back afterwards and say something else. Not exactly open, compassionate or courageous on my part. I tapped out.
Later I took time to reflect and came up with insights and thoughts I shared in Part 1. This was as messy situation, and while I’m committed to learning from it, I’m also committed to acknowledging I could have done more and differently.
Part 3: The past and how it matters
Let me go back a few years and name the elephant that is in that last commenter’s post. Those who know my work and follow me likely know the story of my experience with a public engagement project in Hamilton, Ontario in 2013.
The reason that the Hamilton story matters is this:
- Stories never die, especially on the internet. People can bring them up years later, like the commenter did in this recent situation as if I should want to hide from the experience and they are shaming me by revealing it. I spent years openly talking, writing, blogging and even hosting workshops about this situation and others and what we learn from them so I’m not shamed by the reference. However, the person who I had the exchange with intended to use the reference in that way. Here is an interview done with me less than a month after the situation as an example.
- The experience on the Hamilton project taught me lessons and insights about the risks of public engagement, social media and the impact of uncivil discourse. I am forever grateful for the experience and it has shaped my work in brave, beautiful and very painful ways.
- The experience gave evidence to what can happen when we let fear, blame and shame and risk aversion guide our decisions about public engagement on tough issues that really matter.
- The experience provided insights into what real leadership looks like — and what it doesn’t look like — and how loudest, angriest and most intimidating voices are not always right.