Years ago, I used to be a very active contributor to this online forum. On one particular thread, I remember, I got into a heated debate with one poster over some inciting comments he was making about politics.
We went back and forth, back and forth. I thought I was being completely reasonable, spending hours writing up long, well-supported responses to his posts.
After like a week of this online debate, another member of the forum (who did not participate in the thread) sent me a private message: “Look, I agree with what you’re saying. But you’ve made your point already, and he doesn’t seem to care what you think. No need to keep mulling it over.”
Haughtily, I replied back saying how I think I’m making progress (I wasn’t) and that with every post, he’d see his argument is weak (he didn’t).
But later, I thought about the message. The poster whom I was debating wasn’t arguing with me because he actually cared about what I thought. (And to be honest, I didn’t really care about what he thought.)
He was arguing because he was ticked off and wanted to make a connection with someone, albeit in a horrible way.
Thinking about it further, I realized: most of the time, people aren’t looking for your opinion; they just want to know they aren’t dumb or crazy – that other people agree with them, that they aren’t alone.
Even violent or derogatory statements that people say are often an unhealthy attempt on their part to make a connection – to provoke others to feel as upset or hurt as they feel.
Since then, I’ve developed a mantra that I tell myself whenever I have that urge to argue with someone, either online or offline: “They don’t need to know what I think.”
Not because my thoughts are not worth expressing, or because this person doesn’t deserve to hear them. But because this other person isn’t trying to know what I think. What he or she is trying to do is to make a connection.
Which means there is an opportunity here to be of some use to someone else. Usually, instead of arguing, I just nod and feed back a question: “So are you saying…?” I don’t criticize what they say – I simply show some interest in their views so they don’t feel dumb or alone. I might not agree with these views, but they don’t need to know that. They just need to know that someone is at least willing to understand them.
This mantra is especially important online, on social media and blogs and forums, where you are free to spout out your thoughts and opinions behind a screen. Online, anyone can “play” the assertive alpha.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll build a connection with people. And online, especially, is where you need to practice your connecting skills. Your ability to succeed depends on it.