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gentle ways to tell someone it's a bad idea  RSS feed

 
r ranson
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People come to permies to learn new things.  There are all sorts of different kinds of people from all walks of life, all passionate about this world we live in and curious about ways to make it a better place.

Sometimes people come here with questions or ideas that seem like, well, like a really bad idea.  The problem is, how do we tell them what a bad idea it is while still following the Publishing Standards of this site?

Here are some guidelines I've made for myself. 

I think the first step is to take a moment to remember that this is a a safe place for gentle souls to talk about homesteading and permaculture.  There are going to be some ideas that I find unusual. 

The next step is to ask "why do I think that is such a terrible idea?"  Perhaps they are simply at a different stage in their life.  The Wheaton eco scale is a good example.  If I tell them what a bad idea I think it is, will it slow down their journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle?  Maybe they don't need to be told it's a bad idea.  Maybe it would be more helpful to suggest other ideas without pointing to the bad one.  Maybe it won't.  Sometimes the thing is to ignore the topic and move on.

Sometimes I just can't ignore it.  What then?

Well, there are lots of different ways to say something is a bad idea.

For example, maybe a person wants advice on how to get rid of their dandelions.

One reply could be: "only a stupid person would want to murder such wonderful plants.  don't you understand what great help they are in the yard?"  - If you ever see a response like this on permies, please report it.  There are so many things wrong with it.

First, it's a direct attack on the individual (calling them stupid, "don't you understand").
Second, it fails to answer the question.
Third, it is not solution focused.

From the point of view of the answer, this dandelion murder needs to know what a bad idea it is and how awesome these plants are.

From the point of view of Frustrated-with-dandelions, this kind of answer is hurtful.  It's provocative.  It makes them feel unvalued, not just because of the attack but because of the way their question was ignored.  This one answer can easily create an emotional block which causes Frustrated-with-dandelions to dislike dandelions even more and be less open to eco-friendly solutions like eating weeds in the future. 

This kind of response fails to help in any way. 


A more helpful reply could look like this: When I was a kid, I use this claw-like tool to pull up dandelions.  I only had to do it once a year and after two or three years there weren't anymore.  It worked really well.  Nowadays, I use the same tool, but not to get rid of the dandelions.... maybe some examples of all the great things dandelions could be in the kitchen... Of course, I like to leave some next to my garden so that it encourages pollinators to visit. 


This answer directly addresses the question in a helpful way.  It may not be the answer Frustrated-with-dandelions was looking for, but it is a solution that Munches-on-dandelions knows works because they did it successfully.  It also took the opportunity to open up a whole new world for Frustrated-with-dandelions.  A world where dandelions enter the kitchen as beloved guests.  Frustrated-with-dandelions may not think this is a good idea at this time, but Frustrated-with-dandelions now has had a positive experience.  They got an answer, they feel respected, and maybe next time they see someone talking about dandelion salad they might be willing to try it.



But what if it's a really bad idea?  Like super-duper-worst-idea-ever kind of idea?

I have a challenge for you:

Let's pretend someone wants to make a roof out of cardboard.

Can you say it's a bad idea but, and get this bit, it's important, say it in a positive way that encourages them



 
Marla Kacey
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I have terrible communication skills, so if you don't mind, I'd like to play this game.  Hopefully I can learn something I' ve obviously missed over the years.

Perhaps some questions might be helpful?  Like: how much rain/ snow do you get?  How much wind?  Is your cardboard coated with something waterproof?

Comments would be appreciated.
 
Brie Robb
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"Make a roof out of cardboard?"

Hmm, I have had some cardboard that was very water resistant, and it typically accepts paint very well, short term use or long term use? Layers of plastic over the paper base would  be good. The wind here in Okla. and humidity  (Not counting rain) would make the cardboard start to curl very quickly. So a top - hold down layer of wooden lath/strips would help.

So, if you have a good support frame, lots of layers like a thatched roof, some way to pin the layers down, it might work and last as long as a palm frond roof would.
 
Brie Robb
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((This might actually be a really good children's building project.))
 
Brie Robb
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Up the game a tad -

- I really need to build my under ground house out of cardboard. -
 
Tyler Ludens
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I think sometimes something isn't immediately obvious as a bad idea.  For instance the cardboard roof.  Brie's idea of the cardboard as a thatch substitute got me interested, so I ran this idea past my husband.  He pointed out that the fibers in cardboard are oriented every which way, unlike the thatch fibers which are oriented one way to shed water - the cardboard, because of this different orientation of fibers, might tend to absorb water rather than shed it.

I'm generally not willing to discard any idea on first glance as a bad idea.  I think a good approach might be for people who have actually tried a thing to chime in with their personal experience.  "I made a cardboard roof and it failed and I think this is why it failed, etc"  If nobody has tried it, we can only guess at it being a bad idea based on similar ideas that have failed.  I like that  permies forums might be a place where people can explore wacky ideas.  This seems to line up with Paul's vision as I understand it.

 
Tyler Ludens
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Brie Robb wrote:
- I really need to build my under ground house out of cardboard. -


When I've put cardboard in contact with the ground, it tends to absorb water and rot.  How will you avoid water absorption and rot in your underground cardboard house?
 
Brie Robb
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((giggle )) .. Kind a makes me want build a pig shed with a cardboard roof..
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm convinced entire houses could be made of paper mache.  They just need to be sealed carefully!
 
Brie Robb
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We thought - of the huge, to be recycled  Cardboard bales,  stack and seal them like strawbales  ?

(( even as a game - building with cardboard is a horrific concept ))
- back to game-

It will be super important to keep every thing dry, so maybe using plastic sheeting like the post, shoring and plastic under ground house system?

 
r ranson
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Ah ha!  You very quickly saw through my not so clever plan of making up an example that seems like a bad idea, at first, but might actually work.

I'm generally not willing to discard any idea on first glance as a bad idea. 


Well said Tyler.  I'm really glad you said it. 

This is the kind of thing I try to keep in mind when I see something I think is a really bad idea.  Maybe the person knows something I don't.  Maybe Frustrated-with-dandelions from the first post wants to get rid of the 'weeds' because their child has an extreme allergy to dandelion pollen and goes into anaphylaxis shock when in the yard*, only it's such a rare thing that they feel embarrassed to mention it, or maybe it's just private and they don't want to share it with a forum.  I would feel pretty stupid telling her off for wanting to murder the flowers if this were the case.  It's her child's life at stake; of course, murder every flower you can if it keeps him safe. 

This brings us to another reason why it's so important to say things gently - sometimes saying things bluntly makes one look like an idiot. 


I have terrible communication skills, so if you don't mind, I'd like to play this game.  Hopefully I can learn something I' ve obviously missed over the years.

Perhaps some questions might be helpful?  Like: how much rain/ snow do you get?  How much wind?  Is your cardboard coated with something waterproof?

Comments would be appreciated.


I think asking questions is the best response there is. 

I like questions to be about the question.  Like the ones you give here. 

Questions about the motivation behind the cardboard roof feel aggressive even when they are intended to be kind.  For example, if I ask "why would you want to use cardboard when there are so many other great options like...?" My point of view, I'm looking to understand and at the same time trying to be helpful.  The cardboard person feels like their question is being ignored.  What's worse, now they feel like they are being judged and found wanting.  Like I feel they don't know squat about their conditions and resources.  Which is completely the opposite of my intention. 



*I don't know if this is a real thing or not, I just made it up as an example.
 
r ranson
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I'm convinced entire houses could be made of paper mache.  They just need to be sealed carefully!


Great idea.  During the victorian period, a lot of furniture and even some structures were made like this.  If I remember right, there is a fair amount of literature on how to waterproof it. 
 
Brie Robb
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R Ranson wrote:
Tyler Ludens wrote:I'm convinced entire houses could be made of paper mache.  They just need to be sealed carefully!


Great idea.  During the victorian period, a lot of furniture and even some structures were made like this.  If I remember right, there is a fair amount of literature on how to waterproof it. 



When we did a project with spar varnish it was so pretty, but the cost of the varnish was higher than all the other parts of the project combined. And any tiny spot where a bubble made the sealer thin, seemed to suck moisture in and cause blistering in the finish.
 
Judith Browning
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sometimes, I think, 'beginner's mind' is a good approach to someone else's off the wall idea and even to one's own...I suppose a variation is called 'brainstorming' 

"By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment."

...and sounds as though you're this thread is getting a 'cardboard roof' figured out
 
Michael Bushman
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Brie Robb wrote:Up the game a tad -

- I really need to build my under ground house out of cardboard. -


You might want to try building something small using that technique to work out any issues you might have.
 
r ranson
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A lot of forums I've visited have a very narrow focus.  For example, knitting forum might have people interested in weaving and spinning, even crochet.  But the common element is yarn.  When I ask a question in that kind of forum, I get a yarn focused answer.

Permies.com forum has a really wide focus.  Just about every aspect of life is covered here.  Likewise, we seem to have a very broad membership.  When I ask a question here, I often get a variety of answers, some of which aren't directly linked to the question at all.  My question triggered some amazing thing in someone elses mind, they share it, it sparks an idea in some other readers mind and so on and so forth.

There may be something to the theory that where one asks the question is just as important as how. 

Say I want to ask a question about knitting a sweater and if a drop sleeve or raglan would suit my body type.

If I ask it in a general place, I'll be bombarded with abuse telling me what a bad idea it is.  I'll feel bad.  Then maybe I'll give up on my dream of growing my own sweater and just fall back into the mire of commercialism.

If I ask in a sewing forum, I'll get details about body shape and measurements, sewing pattern ideas that can be used for inspiration. The sweater they help me design will be knit flat in segments then sewn together.

If I ask in a knitting forum, there will be thousands of suggestions on sweater patterns and eventually someone will point me to Elizabeth Zimmerman's books.  EZ's books are full of amazing ideas and the knowlage necessary to help me design my own sweater from scratch.

If I ask at permies.com, I have no idea what I'll get.  It may be a discussion on sheep breeds, or how minerals and diet affect their wool.  It might travel to manure management and avoiding herbicides.  I'll probably get lots of suggestions on the sweater as well, but maybe not what I had originally envisioned.  Maybe my original sweater idea was to buy some bright dyed synthetic yarn - so it's a bit frustrating at first to have someone tell me all about natural wool when my plan is to knit a synthetic sweater (not actually something I would do - just an example).  If the answers are blunt and attack my choice of yarn, then, of course, I'm going to get a bad feeling about those eco-people always think they are better than me, who cares about the stinking environment anyway (not something I would think - just an example).  But if the answer is gentle, then maybe I might change my mind and give wool a try.  It could be a gateway to a whole new world.

I think for me, the best and the most difficult thing about asking questions is that one doesn't know what answers one is going to get.  Sometimes that is really frustrating because I feel like I suck at asking questions or worse, someone else might not think I'm important enough to take the time to read my question properly.

Then I step back and realize, it's my choice if I'm frustrated or not.  Deep breath.  Then I make a concious choice to try to take the answer in the spirit it was given.  When I can do that, I find I get a lot more bennifit from the expierence than I would otherwise.
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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I think asking questions of the person is the best approach. I'd start with "Do you have a good water pump? I could sell you one." (Joking.)
I think some of the world's best inventions had more than a few people saying "that's a bad idea".
A flying machine? What are those crazy Wright brothers thinking?
 
Nicole Alderman
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When I read Tyler mention Brie's comment by name, I thought she was just being polite by referencing where she got the idea. When I was in college, I always had to source my work and mention where I got my info. I actually feel slightly offended if someone talks about one of my ideas without mentioning me. I honestly had no idea that other's might not be mentioning me by name so as not to be offensive. This is really eye-opening to me.

When I read the discussion, this is how I interpreted it:

Person A: I have this idea about using cardboard as an underlayment for thatch.

Person B: Wow, I never thought of Person A's idea about using it for thatch. It was so fascinating that I talked about it with my husband and he mentioned how the grain goes every which way and so would have a hard time shedding water.

I don't perceive Person B as condemning Person A, I see Person B as responding to Person A's idea that B found fascinating, as a way to both better understand A as well as to build knowledge further.

It would be interesting to see how many people lean one way or another on this--is it offensive to reference someone's idea even if you're not just praising them; or is it more offensive to not mention where the idea came from?

And, since it seems people view this differently, how can we speak so as not to offend anyone?
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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Anything you say can be quoted, seeing how every post has a quote button. So I suggest: "Say what you mean and mean what you say."
And ,if quoted ,take it as you said something worth repeating, whether that's a thumbs up or an angle of "let's discuss our different opinions about this".
 
r ranson
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When I am conversing on a forum, I have control of only three things: What I write, how I interpret what others wrote, and when it's time to walk away. 

As much as I would like it to be otherwise, I cannot control how others view my words.  I can only be as clear as I know how and hope they took my meaning in the spirit it was given.  If I ask a question, chances are, it will kindle ideas in people's minds that take the conversation in a different direction than I had hoped.  That's perfectly natural. 

When I read other people's writing, I don't know what frame of mind they are in.  They have different lives, different experiences, different intentions, and even if I outright asked them "hey person, what frame of mind are you in when you wrote that", and they answered honestly, there is still a chance I might misunderstand.  It's difficult for me.  It's even more difficult because I have trouble with language and sometimes the words get jumbled up making reading a slow and painful process.  I don't have any control over that, nor do I have any way to know the intentions of the other writer.  What I can control is how I perceive what is written.  I consciously make a choice to assume that the other writer has the best intentions and anything that triggers confusion or frustration in me, was due to us having different backgrounds - a cultural clash.  Or at least this is what I try to do.

More often, I walk away.  Make tea, do chores, whatever.  Taking the time to do something else often helps me see things from different perspectives.  When I come back and re-read, often things make more sense.


Getting back to the original question, how can we tell someone it's a bad idea in a gentle way. I think this is a very difficult skill.  I'm not very good at it yet, but I would like to be.  It's especially important in a forum setting where hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of people view the conversation.  When we write, sometimes it's easy to forget about our readers.  I feel that these conversations are not just for us who write, but for the readers as well. 
 
Thekla McDaniels
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R Ranson wrote:

Let's pretend someone wants to make a roof out of cardboard.

Can you say it's a bad idea but, and get this bit, it's important, say it in a positive way that encourages them


I want to play R's game!  I need to ask the someone a question, and don't know the poster's name, so I am just going to call the person "Builder".

Hi Builder, Welcome to Permies!  It's great to have another creative thinker here.  The idea of a cardboard roof is new to me, I never saw one.  I wonder what gave you that idea.

What people need from a roof depends a lot on the climate where they live.  Where do you live and what you can expect from your climate?  How much rain, snow or other precipitation do you get, and how much wind and how strong?   What do other people in your region use for their roofs, and what are the traditional materials?  What are the ways you think cardboard will improve on those traditional materials?  How often do you want to replace or repair your roof once it is built?

One last question, I wonder, are you thinking of corrugated cardboard, with the air spaces in it, or the other completely flat stuff they call "pasteboard" at my recycling center?

Keep us posted on your project!
 
 
Marla Kacey
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Oooo, I like that approach. 
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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Maybe the person knows cardboard is a "bad idea", but they can get all they want for free beside the supermarket's dumpster and they can't afford to do better at this time. If you ask, "Why don't you buy some ___ instead of cardboard?" it might hurt their feelings/pride. Same as asking the man laying on the park bench covered with a newspaper "Why don't you go buy a wool blanket?"
Maybe it would give you a better idea of their situation if you ask them why they have chosen to use cardboard for their roof.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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R Ranson wrote:
Getting back to the original question, how can we tell someone it's a bad idea in a gentle way. I think this is a very difficult skill.  I'm not very good at it yet, but I would like to be.  It's especially important in a forum setting where hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of people view the conversation.  When we write, sometimes it's easy to forget about our readers.  I feel that these conversations are not just for us who write, but for the readers as well. 


I agree, R.  We are co authoring a huge mass of information for future reference, and future readers.   At the same time we are writing to current readers with and about  their (or our) ongoing projects and/or ideas.  And when we see / read that someone is going to try something that looks like it is going to be disastrous to us as we read about it, then, speaking for myself, I want to protect them from that loss and heartache.  I believe mistakes and things that don't work are learning experiences, and so I worry about creating dependency in others when I attempt to steer them clear of what I see as the coming learning experience. 

What's left for me is questions.  Possibly I am misunderstanding what they are intending to do/try.  Often, I am accurate in what I think they are saying they want to do, AND accurate in my assessment of the value of the results they are going to get with those methods and materials.

One of the advantages of the context of an online forum is that I can take my time crafting a post.  I probably throw away more than twice as many posts as I submit. 

I don't really want to tell anyone anything is a bad idea, I want people to get some learning out of their ideas without having to lose time and materials, want them to do some more thinking about what they say they are considering.  I don't want to tell them what I know, I want them to see for themselves what I see, and evaluate for themselves if that is really their desired outcome, or how they might improve on their own ideas. 

I want them to develop the process of analysis which can carry over to other undertakings, if a person makes it a habit. 

The only way I know how to get another person to give some thought to what might happen if they follow through on their first thoughts, is to ask them questions directing them to what I think are important considerations.

I have a difficult time building, especially making adequate bracing.  I have to look at what I am planning and ask myself "what's going to happen when force or load pushes from this direction, what's going to keep it from collapsing this direction, what's going to happen if I try to lift here, or pull from here.

I think these are the kinds of questions that will also support others to look at the whole of their proposal.  And if the questions are genuinely asked as questions, and I am truly curious how they will be answered, then I seldom offend or discourage the person I'm asking.  And, sometimes whole worlds open up to me, that I had not considered.  I think the genuine curiosity is a crucial element.

In the case of a cardboard roof, there are places it could be workable:  no wind, no moisture, need for shade.  It has the advantages of providing insulation, and the corrugations can be aligned perpendicular to previous layer, providing structural strength.  

I've enjoyed thinking about when, how, where it might be just what I need.  It is a mental exercise, to look at exactly what the material is, and what it will and won't do.

Now, I'm wondering, "how 'bout a cardboard fireplace?" and having fun with that.  I could soak the cardboard in a borax solution to make it fire resistant.  (or is that bug resistant?)  It would be easy to cut and shape to form the ducts that carry the important air currents.  I am having trouble with the possibility that the high temperatures might cause the fibers to turn to charcoal or ash even if they don't burst in to flame...

Thanks, R, this is a great thread,  (IMO)
 
Casie Becker
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Maybe not on topic, but I really want to share how much delight this thread has given me. I've laughed at loud several times at the shear joy I get from how positive the mindset of this forum actually is.

When given a improbable scenario to practice gentle dissuasion, the immediate response is to find ways to make the improbable work. I apparently missed a thread cleaning, but I haven't seen one person who even for a theoretical exercise managed to actually be discouraging.

I even love that the last post above mine has decided to one up the improbable with a bigger challenge, and some theories to start making it work.
 
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