Jul 22, 2008 - opinion, philosophy    1 Comment

Zen and the Art of the Reply

In this day of multi-channel communications overload, it has become insanely easy to fire off an email (or SMS, Twitter, Tumblr, Jaiku, Plurk, Pownce, Jott, …), post to your blog (or Facebook, Classmates, Friendster, LinkedIn, Plaxo, LiveJournal, WordPress, Blogger, MySpace, Utterz, Orkutz, an online forum or your choice, …), or leave a post on someone else’s blog (or … well, you get the picture) … all without really thinking about what we have to say.  Couple that with a general air of intolerance in some online circles (where any reply brings on a “flamewar” as though people were just itching for a fight) and spam shrinks to a trivial (and, for the most part, ignorable) online issue.

In a nutshell:  Just because someone else publicly said something (either to/about you or about a topic which you’re passionate about) doesn’t mean you must engage in what may appear to you as witty repartee but which, in fact, is mindless “oh, yeah?  Well, so there!” prattle.  To say nothing of the stress created as your blood pressure rises and you focus all your energy on visualizing your online foe being squished between your thumb and forefinger (like the heads of victims of Mr. Tyzik from The Kids in the Hall) .  It may feel good, but only for awhile … and it usually keeps things escalating for no good reason.

I had lunch with my parents this weekend, during which our discussion wandered (as it is want to do) onto the topic of conflict resolution.  More specifically, is it really necessary to confront someone who has either said something or sent something (email, etc.) to you, especially if their statement pisses you off?

The simple answer:  Not necessarily.  If you’re having an open and honest dialog, perhaps (but it requires that both parties be willing to both listen and understand the other).  However, if you’re pretty certain that the speaker will neither understand nor appreciate your response, sometimes it’s best not to reply.

But how to know when and when not to continue a dialog?  A very good question, and I can answer that by giving you 3 questions to ask yourself when you’re in such a situation.

Before you react (or reply, or email, or whatever), ask yourself the following:

  1. Does [what they said] require a response?
  2. Does [what they said] require a response from me?
  3. Does [what they said] require a response from me now?

If you cannot answer “yes” to all three questions, don’t respond (if “yes” to just the first 2, then wait a bit).  Pretty simple, cuts to the heart of the matter … but not the way we’re programmed to think normally.  Think of these as a more detailed interpretation of the old adage:

If you have nothing constructive to say, say nothing.”

I can’t take credit for these 3 questions.  Kudos here goes to a coworker who uses them to get her through meetings where she finds herself itching to dive into a debate, only to find (after applying the questions) that any input she would have provided would have been misinterpreted and not produced the desired outcome.

I also make no claims about how easy it is to simply let things go when you first try.  It’s not (believe me, I know), but it does get easier with time.  And, with time, you’ll find that you become less and less riled up about things you have no interest in discussing.  Life gets better, stress goes down.

Try it!

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