On Not Having An Answer Always


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There are a lot of discussions where I feel I should be able to come up with an appropriate answer while really I’m not. I hate that feeling. Even more so in situations where I feel like questions should be asked, but are not, and I really wish I’d be able to answer those.

Situations like the latter tend to end up in somewhat fruitless perpetuating debates where otherwise good people blame each other for being destructive, rude, negative and what not while everyone really just keep talking past each other.

I believe communication between humans—particularly online—is all about asking the right questions in the right moment, so the right answer can be given and everyone can gain understanding.

The capability of articulating oneself accurately on the web doesn’t happen naturally. It must be achieved in a process of self-cultivation that comes neither cheap, nor easy, but through self-questioning and, in fact, active listening. Listen to what other do not say, as an elder friend of mine put it.

By active listening I mean asking honest (in opposite to rhetoric) questions over and over again, be it to partners in a conversation, or to oneself, in order to help ensuring every message stays intact on its way from sender to receiver. Intact as in uncorrupted by perception filters, or poisoned by sarcasm.

Even when a message sounds rude or harmful at first, letting it be what it may be for the moment and asking an honest question can go a long way for the betterment of the conversation.

  • “What do you mean by…?”
  • “Do I understand you correctly, are you’re saying…?”
  • “Why do you think…?”

Ask for clarification rather once more than less. There can never be to much clarification.

There can be (and often is) too much opinion, though.

Opinions are cheap. Jotting down one’s opinion into a comment or a tweet without being willing to challenge it first, will seldom add much value to any discussion. (Unless the very point of that discussion was gathering opinions in the first place.)

However, there is value to be gained from another person’s opinion when you try understanding them in all honesty. Put on their shoes. Choose—for the very moment—to seriously see things from their perspective. Consider their feelings possibly connected to their position. Then weigh their point of view against the stack of premises your own opinion is based upon. You may find it changing already.

Try incentivizing the same process for others. Help them understand your position. If you’re passionate, let them know why you’re so passionate. Feelings matter. Explaining why you feel the way you do can add honesty to a conversation as well as trust, and hence, again, better understanding.

Give and demand empathy. Refer to facts, but don’t try hiding behind them. Facts are real, but so is human perception. Whenever there may be filters due to culture, language, lack of knowledge (or an abundance thereof) that could prevent a person from understanding your message fully, you are the one who has to make sure it is understood correctly in the end.

All that being said, what I keep reminding myself of is: Not having an answer always might just be okay.

5 reactions on “On Not Having An Answer Always

  1. Reactor says:

    Wisely spoken !

    Es gibt aber noch einen Aspekt, welche der Autor nur
    gestreift hat ( ‘…there is value to be gained…’).
    Eine Aussage oder eine Frage sorgfältig zu formulieren
    verbessert den eigenen Gedankenfluss und kann ihn dadurch
    sogar nachträglich korrigieren.
    Wohl nicht nur mir ist es schon passiert, dass ihm während der
    Schilderung eines schwierigen fachlichen Problems die Lösung
    dazu einfiel. Das Phänomen lässt sich methodisch einsetzen
    und das verblüffende daran ist, dass der Gesprächspartner
    nur interessiert zuzuhören braucht. Mit der Materie vertraut
    braucht er nicht zu sein.
    Das Geheimnis scheint im Zurück-Hören der sorgfältig
    formulierten Problemstellung zu liegen.
    Es mag paradox klingen, aber der Ohr zu Hirn Informationskanal
    scheint weniger zu filtern ( ‘…uncorrupted by perception filters…’)
    als es der viel direktere Gehirn zu Gehirn Kanal tut.

    Heinrich von Kleist dies im Aufsatz ‘Über die allmähliche
    Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden’ wohl als erster

    1. Interessante Ergänzungen in Bezug auf verbal geführte Gespräche, vielen Dank! Mir ging’s mehr um (getippte) Online-Debatten.

  2. ben_ says:

    Funny thing about it: When I started reading the Post, I didn’t realize that it was about Discussions on the Web. And as I have seen you hold Talks and even had the pleasure to talk to you in person, I was wondering: “What ist he talking about? He’s such an kind and elloquent speaker. Are the people and discussions at the Wordcamp Europe sooo rough?”

    But then I read on and realized “Ah! He’s talking about Online Discussions! Now it makes sense!”, which is a bad sign for the state of how people behave on the web, and which makes your post more important.

    1. Luckily not all, not many even—just a few, but they tend to be “loud” which in return tends to p*** people off. 🙂

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