Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Ignore the Content

Things I Learned the Hard WayIn this series, I’m exploring the stories I find myself coming back to in work and life. I call them Things I Learned the Hard Way.

My dad, the great psychologist, once told me that he thought kids would be a snap. In college, he’d trained rats to run mazes in the dark. Surely he had a keen insight into behavioral training.

Problem was, rats don’t smile at you, say they’ll be home by midnight, steal your car, and stay out all night. Suffice to say, dad found raising me and my sister to be more challenging than expected.

But he has taught me a few things, and one I keep coming back to is: ignore the content. Sometimes, when dealing with an interpersonal conflict, logically addressing the complaints is that last thing that will help. Instead, try to address the emotion behind it.

So, for example, when a kid is freaking out because ketchup wasn’t applied to his hot dog in just the right way, it’s never about the ketchup. It’s about a deeper issue (control, fear, low blood sugar – whatever).

Apply this to web communities. Say a well-known site, say, redesigns their homepage. The new version could be better in every objective way, but users will still freak out. Why? It’s not the content – it’s something deeper.

The freakouts mean, “I love this site, I feel ownership of it, and you changed it, and that makes me mad.” When you look at it that way, you can see why a reasonable, factual response on why the new design is better will not work. Instead, you have to address the feelings behind the complaint. For example:

“You’re a valuable member, and we really appreciate how much time and energy you’ve put into the site. We know change can be hard, and we appreciate you writing to tell us your feelings. We think the new version is better, but you don’t have to agree. All we ask is that you give it a little time. See how you feel about it next week, and write us again. We’re grateful for your participation, and sincerely thank you for your feedback.”

See what I did there? No selling the new site. Instead, praise the user for giving a shit (and you should – trust me, I’ve run sites that nobody cared about and it’s much worse), try to make them feel important, show that you take it seriously, and ask for a little time.

With most redesigns, within a week, all the bitching is over (or, at least, moved on to something new). If there are major themes in the members’ complains, maybe there really is something wrong. They’re doing you a favor by pointing out the problems. Take them seriously and implement changes. The complainers will become your most dedicated fans if they see that their input results in positive changes.

The next time someone complains to you, try to ignore the content of the complaint and address the emotion behind it instead. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can convert the haters to lovers and make your site better at the same time.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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