You’re on social media right? Awww come on! You can admit it! Cast your mind back to the day (and you know this has happened multiple times) when the following social media interaction occurred:
You: I think… <Insert controversial opinion on controversial topic here>.
Person A: Your opinion on <controversial topic> is wrong. Not only is it wrong, but you are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person for holding that opinion!
Person B: <insert .gif of person gleefully eating popcorn here>.
You: No! Your opinion is wrong and YOU are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person for holding that opinion…and you are very rude for calling me names!
Person A: <retort, with more rude words>.
You: <Counter-retort with even longer and more complex rude words>.
Person B: <Corrects your grammar>.
Useless right? You can’t insult someone to your point of view. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. Right?
But Why? Obviously your position is clearly the most rightest and bestest of the ways to think about the situation! It is objectively true!
You know what though? That’s exactly what person A is thinking about their opinion. Neither of you will convince the other by stubbornly and self-righteously standing in your towers, hurling fiery barbs of biting rhetoric. What you have is not a discussion. What you have engaged in is a war. A zero sum game.
Your opinion (read: world view) looms so large in your mind’s eye that you are blind to the other person’s perspective.
Let me throw another cliche at you.
Before you judge a man, first walk a mile in his shoes. (Also, before you judge a woman, first make sure you are in a foreign country calling from an unlisted number under an assumed name.) It’s a cliche for a reason. It works.
How do you convey your perspective to another person without it being received as a flaming spear hurled at their ivory tower?
Tap into that creative well inside of you and tell them a compelling story!
Ever since human beings had the great “AHA!” moment that lead to drawing pictures on cave walls (and I’m certain the men drew the antelope waaaaaay larger than it actually was), we have been telling each other stories.
Stories are the lens through which we seek to understand our earthly existence, and give it context. They are the vehicle through which we share that understanding and context with others. Stories build rapport between the audience and the story-teller, and the rapport in turn moves to empathy. The place of empathy is where we want to be when we are discussing difficult things.
Empathy is the place where you have invited your neighbor in to your tower and they are looking around and saying “Hey! This is a pretty nice place you’ve got here!” Empathy is the place where you find yourself returning the sentiment.
This is the power of story.
Readers (or listeners) can’t help but put themselves behind the eyeballs or in the shoes of the protagonist in a well told story. Even if they fundamentally disagree with the world view of said character, they are still able to walk a mile or two in those shoes, root for that person’s successes, mourn for that person’s losses, and understand their point of view.
Stories are the gateway to empathetic communication. We homo sapiens love stories! We can’t get enough of them! As a species we consciously seek them out! We WANT to walk a few miles in someone else’s shoes. It gets stuffy inside our own heads and we want to step out for a breathe of fresh air from time to time.
But stories take effort. Stories take time. They take thought, mindfulness, sensitivity, humility, and above all, vulnerability.
In a social media society that demands external perfection, but is rabid to stick a muddy pitch fork in your cracks and wedge you open, vulnerability can be scary. But if we want to move forward in our relationships, in our communities, in our cities and our countries, we have got to start telling one another stories again.
Social media communication is just a series of punch lines without the set-up.
No wonder people are getting upset! But we are the human race. We have a secret weapon against such things.
Tell them a story. Tell them your story…and when they tell you theirs (and they will), listen with empathy. There is infinite variation in the human experience, and if we slow down to listen to one another’s stories, we may find that we like each other a whole lot more than we thought we did. We have more that binds us together than keeps us apart.
Some examples from literature (spoiler alert for those who have not read these books, and also, go read these books…seriously):
In Les Miserables, we are taught that compassion, love, and forgiveness are the highest ideals that man should strive for.
Does everyone agree with that notion? No. But we can all agree that Victor Hugo makes one heck of a case. When you have walked a mile or two in Jean ValJean’s shoes, it becomes hard to argue against the case the author is building.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, we learn that revenge is justifiable when you have been terribly wronged and it’s totally satisfying!
Maybe from the movie version. But if you take the time to read the book, you will find the opposite message. A very large volume of words are dedicated to the story of Edmond Dantes exacting revenge on those who ruined his life; and his revenge is…truly spectacular! He RUINS those people! Completely and utterly destroys their lives! As a reader, every time someone gets their comeuppance you cheer in your mind! It’s awesome!
But then you get to the end.
Edmond Dantes has accomplished everything he set out to do. Yet, he finds that it did not make him any happier. In fact, he regrets his actions. What makes this moment so powerful is that the whole time, the reader has been following along and cheering as he exacted his revenge. Then, the author makes the reader examine what it is they have been rooting for. After walking many miles in the shoes of Edmond Dantes we learn that revenge is not a path that leads to happiness, but is just as destructive for those who enact it as for those who are acted upon.
Or, as is attributed to Confucius:
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
Maybe you don’t think so. Maybe you think revenge is totally justifiable in some situations. But again, Alexandre Dumas makes an incredibly compelling argument to the contrary, and maybe, just maybe, by the end of the story he has swayed you a little toward his way of thinking.
That, is the power of story!
So stop arguing, and start narrating. Build empathy. Tell your story. But above all, and this is the most important thing…
Well hey! Look at you making to the end…and so fast! You must really like reading! I have a great idea! Since you love reading so much, why not check out my book “Descendants of Hope?” It’s a fantasy allegory about addiction, gluttony, intolerance and the power of hope! Also, there’s robots! Check it out here! Don’t forget to sign up for my email list here! That way I can toooootally not spam you with emails! No really. I’ll just email you cool stuff.