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The most effective way to maintain your composure when it feels like everyone’s out to bring you down, is to remember that they probably aren’t talking about you, they are likely struggling at this stuff themselves and, finally, if they ever met you in person, they’d probably have a very different opinion of you. Let’s explore all that.

Chances are, they’re not talking about you at all

When you spend as much time online and on social media as I do, you start to be affected by a “reality distortion field.” The way that social media is designed to deliver you more of what interests you, means that you end up living your online life inside a very curated world that is designed just for you to keep viewing, keeping reading and keep interacting. And even though the networks have gone a long way towards reducing the amount of “outrage bait” on their platforms, it can often feel like some people are writing about you, specifically, when they’re writing about the same of kind of stuff you do for work.

That’s not helped by the increasingly cavalier way that a lot of self-styled influencers write and communicate to their followers. It seems that, even if people’s names are alongside what they type into their updates, the relative disconnection from real people in real life will lead them to say things or write things, without thinking of how they’re received by others. There’s a distinct lack of empathy in what a lot of active social media posters write, as opposed to what there are like in real life when you meet them. After reading a book or listening to a podcast by some motivational guru who is urging them to “be their authentic self” and “let their voice be heard,” some very introverted people become spiteful keyboard warriors when their audience is a bunch of avatars, instead of a room full of live bodies. Apparently, some “authentic selves” are actually quite awful selves.

Regardless of your own sensitivity to what they’re writing, or their lack of regard for anyone else’s receiving of their message, it’s incredibly likely that what they wrote, or what they said in a podcast, wasn’t about you at. Yes, it may have been around a topic that you are heavily invested in. Yes, it may be about a set of behaviours that you may act out with. And yes, it may even be about someone in your same town. But the chances of all of it being about you, specifically, are very slim. Unless you’re a politician, then it probably is about you.

Often, people who struggle are people who also lash out online

But let’s just say that they are talking about you. And you can absolutely guarantee it. Then, so what? Your success has nothing to do with their words. You’re not Hillary Clinton a few days out from the US Presidential Election in 2016. You’re good at what you do, and you’re something of an expert at it. While it’s nice and simple to dismiss those who don’t agree with you as being “haters” and “trying to bring you down,” there’s an opportunity to do something different. There’s an opportunity to bring people like this closer to you, as allies and as friends. Yes, even online.

When someone from a rival business is seemingly hitting out at you on social media, or being quoted as saying things against you as a business – or even as a person – there’s a very good chance that they are struggling with the same stuff that you are. A lack of customers. Problems dealing with economic changes. Issues with technology. New competitors outside the market and outside the country. Maybe they’re not actually all that good at what they’re doing and looking for some validation from their audience that they’re better than they are. The point is that when you’re online, things aren’t always as they seem. People aren’t completely honest about where they’re coming from. The results and triumphs they talk about aren’t always true or at least not as amazing as they are in reality.

So while it’s tempting to go in on the offensive and attack their credibility – or get defensive and give them the attention they’re looking for, a quick private message to reach out to them and encourage them in their efforts online – or even a more public positive comment on one of their social media posts could disarm a situation before it becomes one. And may even lead to a coffee or a beer at that next function you both are at. Which brings me to the last point here.

If you could just meet “Karen” in-person…

The low-touch, automation-heavy, email-connected world we play in as digitally-enabled businesses can dehumanise the people around us. Customers become entries in a database. Feedback becomes an annoyance. We become so used to hearing from gurus that we need to become influencers and reality TV stars that we pull back in a comfortable pose, hit record and put on the show. And that picture, the audio recording, that blog post, that becomes who we are as business owners. I’ve done it myself from time to time. Eventually someone corrects me and I get back on track. But by then damage has been done. I saw them as something they weren’t. They see me as something I’m not. We never had a chance to make things right because we dug in behind our profiles and our email addresses. Didn’t make a phone call and didn’t meet face to face.

I love this digital world deeply. I’ve been a part of it since the 1980s. I remember that feeling of my first online chat with someone on the other side of the planet with the wide eyes of a child. I remember the wonder of accessing information in my bedroom that I used to have to go to a library to access. I remember the first time I typed LOL in a chat and knew it didn’t mean “lots of love.” Yet with all this power and wonder and access to everything, we as humans still require a face, a voice, a presence in a room with us to feel the full force of the empathy that we’re born with as an evolutionary tool for helping us work together to survive. We simply don’t connect with an adversary unless we can shake their hand, or at least read their full body language and take in all the non-verbal cues that will move us from being uninterested in anything they have to say, to wanting to form an ongoing conversation with them. It’s why networking is still so powerful even in 2020.  You’re simply more likely to like someone and trust them if you can meet them in real life.

I have lost count of the number of other business owners, influencers and general members of the public that I had formed a poor opinion of based upon their online behaviour, only to be delighted by who they were in person. Aggressive, angry, soapbox dwellers online were sweet, intelligent and engaging people when we met. Opinionated, attention-seekers were often shy and full of insight when I finally had a real world conversation with them. Of course, for some, the show never ends, and they’re always on stage, on a soapbox or on a rant. And they tend to be the outliers and those who, despite all their words and criticisms, the ones who have little to no impact on the world around them.

But for the majority of the time, what people are online, isn’t what they are in their own living rooms at night once the kids have gone to bed.

A rising tide raises all boats

If there’s a message heading in to 2020 that I would like to see us do as digitally-enabled business owners and marketers, it’s that, they’re probably not talking about you.  IF they are, they’re probably struggling with the same things you’re struggling with, and if you maybe consider being the first person to step forward with an encouraging message, comment or even a handshake at an event, we might all be able to lift the tide for everyone. And when there’s more around, there’s more around for everyone.