Unexpected friendliness can be disarming, even for someone who called you a name we can’t print.
Comedian Sarah Silverman, who is known for her bawdy humor, surprised her followers by how she responded to a man’s unprintable one-word tweet. Instead of ripping him in kind, Silverman responded with a friendly, empathetic tweet.
“I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back … sux too. See what happens when u choose love. I see it in you.”
The unexpected sympathy offensive started an exchange that wound up with the man apologizing for his crude comment, confessing he is actually a fan and agreeing to seek out a support group. The man launched a GoFundMe campaign, Silverman encouraged her Twitter followers to contribute and he quickly raised $1,774.
After Silverman offered to pay for his medical treatment, the man said he would dedicate the money he raised for charity. Pretty sweet outcome for an encounter that began with a slur.
Scathing online comments have become an irresistible and possibly irreversible norm. When attacked, we attack back. We dehumanize our critics so we can do our best to humiliate them. We are treated to daily insults from a tweetstorm master who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Based on her style of humor, Silverman is an unlikely disciple of friendly, sympathetic rejoinders. But her actions and continuing engagement with someone who she easily could have dismissed as a sexist troll shows the astonishing power of friendliness.
Silverman took a moment to look beyond a slur to the person’s motivation – and his pain. She displayed empathy after she took the time to scan his online record. She offered encouragement instead of invective. She provided an example more of us should follow.
Issue managers should expand their playbook to consider Silverman’s approach. Getting in shouting matches is never a good strategy, so why not explore how to disarm critics with a little sympathetic listening and a dose of empathy.
If the attacker still foams venom, your calm, mature demeanor can win respect for onlookers. More likely, your genuine effort to understand the source of anger and opposition can convert a heated moment into serious and maybe constructive conversation. Beyond coming across as caring, you might learn something valuable that you can apply to a project and mitigate concerns.
The subtler lesson taught by Silverman is the context for your listening. She capitalized on surprise to change the trajectory of the exchange. Whatever prompted the man’s tweet, Silverman’s response surely took him aback. He probably expected a sharp response, but instead got a sympathetic ear.
Silverman proves that conversations, even on Twitter, don’t have to be vicious and dehumanizing. Before hitting “send,” take a Silverman moment and ask if there isn’t another response. Instead of treating critics as enemies, try listening to them. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results. No joke.