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Unexpected fallout

Once in awhile, a situation goes down 180 degrees differently from how I think it will. Something goes horribly awry, despite my best intentions and the clearest foresight available to me.

It has happened in the last two weeks.


In the first instance, I publicized a cause that was important to a group of people by way of an event. I am a guest on the group’s forum and I know to tread lightly because of the dynamics between the group and a position I hold. I posted said event about said issue on this group’s space. Turns out the group (the vocal ones, anyway) did not like the person who sponsored the event nor the timing of the event — issues I did not foresee and issues which unleashed 5 pages of seething vitriol aimed squarely at me.

At the time of the unleashing I was on a road trip, touring Civil War battlefields with my family and my newly-bereaved father-in-law and sister-in-law. Which meant that on my smart phone I was able to read but not to respond to the spinning-out-thread.

And, with two car-weary kids in the back of a rented van, also meant an abundance of battle energy all around me.

I thought and thought and meditated about how to best handle this unexpected turn on the thread. Walk away and never come back? I would lose a forum that I value; plus that would mean all the allegations about me would go unanswered. Defend myself? That would likely not resolve anything, but rather fan the flames. Gather my meager forces to back me? It seemed wrong to bring others into the fray.

On the day between Gettysburg and Antietam, it hit me. I remembered the title of this post. And the way became clear.

Everyone wants to be heard. Being understood is one of the best gifts we can give or receive. So I composed a brief reply addressing what I heard group members saying. I tried to be an objective mirror, reflecting back to them the points they were making, without vitriol and without defense. I admitted nothing, I apologized for nothing, I simply reported what I heard their concerns to be.

That proved to be the key.

Many forum members were gracious,  reaching out to me publicly or privately. I was thanked for the understanding and I was redeemed.


The second derailment began with my recent post about questions from a closed-era adoptee. I “met” JoAnne online somewhere along the way. She would clue me in whenever she made progress on finding out more about her adoption and her origins. Hers is a  story that has villains (judges, attorneys, doctors — at best unethical and at worst, criminal) as well as angels (librarians, historians, genealogists — common people with common decency in helping her find her roots), with twists and turns worthy of a John Irving novel. She’s in her 50s, adopted at birth and readopted later on, her truth hidden from her by so many players in her saga.

She is also one of the kindest, gentlest people I can imagine. Think Beth of Little Women, Celie of The Color Purple, Truvy of Steel Magnolias. Graceful and gracious to the core. In spite of the numerous wrongs done to her, JoAnne has maintained her ability to see the good in people, proof that what you see and assume about others is what you see and assume in yourself.

JoAnne was raised in the 1950s and 60s when adoption was something all parties pretended didn’t happen. Her petri dish, if you will (we are all surrounded by culture and grow in it accordingly, just like strep germs do in agar), was full of spoken and unspoken beliefs and assumptions. She read my stories about the way I’m raising my children, and she wanted to further explore those assumptions she’d been exposed to and had absorbed, almost by osmosis.

Now I know that many in the open adoption community are committed to educating about openness in adoption. So I had the bright idea to not only answer her questions but also invite others to. When I gave a heads up to Heather, the founder of the Open Adoption Roundtable, that I was doing so, she offered to make the questions part of the OART.

Similarly, the Open Adoption Roundtable once tackled O Solo Mama’s “Ignorant” Questions about Open Adoption (her blog is no longer available so I cannot direct you there). This mom via international adoption sought to better understand the strange-to-her thing that is open adoption, and OA bloggers were eager to help her understand, abiding by the old adage that there are no stupid questions.

This was my expectation with JoAnne’s wonderings, as well. She, too, was trying to wrap her mind around a road she didn’t get a chance to walk. She, too, had an innocent curiosity about a concept that was foreign to her.

I did not foresee that some would take offense at the questions JoAnne posed. I did not foresee that JoAnne would thus be hurt and shamed.

But our intentions were good. Neither JoAnne nor I set out to insult or inflame, but rather to illuminate.

Does that matter? Should it matter?

As I hover over the Publish button, I acknowledge that this post, also, may be taken as either an explanation — or 180 degrees opposite my intention. I do hope it turns out to be the former.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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25 Responses

  1. These are questions that are very very emotional, and so are the answers. It’s very tough for all of us to deal with the reactions. And misunderstandings along the way will naturally occur. Not much you can do except keep trying and keep talking. 🙂

  2. Yes, it matters. All words, even the good ones, are like missiles. We have a target audience and hope they will have a certain affect. Sometimes, no matter how direct our aim and how pure our intent, those missiles either hit the wrong audience, or hit the right one but have the wrong effect. I believe that intent *does* matter, because that can never be misguided. If your intent was pure and was to illuminate, then it should be considered and hopefully taken to heart. Being caught between these two unexpected trials couldn’t have been easy. So sorry that you (and JoAnne) have had to handle this fallout. I hope those in the second situation will also see that you never meant to anger everyone, and that JoAnne didn’t either.

  3. As to fall-out from the former, people need to get over themselves. That said, the relative anonymity that a computer screen/keyboard provide somehow inspires people to say things in a way they would not to a person’s face. Regardless of whether an attack or criticism comes on-line or in person, I try my best to remember “Seek first to understand, then be understood” as that has a way of diffusing others right out the gate. Sounds like you did the same with similar results.

    As to the latter, I will say that as an adult adoptee in a closed adoption I thought that the questions spoke volumes about a specific closed adoption situation and the adoptee’s need to come to an understanding about it more than they spoke about the differences necessarily between closed and open adoptions or about open adoption itself. I didn’t comment (because my experience of my closed adoption seemed different and because we are in the process of pursuing an open adoption but aren’t matched yet) and am glad I did not. I’m not quite sure that how the questions were phrased and to whom they were directed were going to bring her the answers she was seeking. I do hope that some of the responses she received did help her on her path of processing her own closed adoption.

  4. Ugh. I hate it when that happens. No matter how strong a person you are or how strong your convictions it is always awful to be the target of vitriol. I’m sorry you went through that. I think when people know someone’s heart it is easier to speak about difficult things because they know where the person comes from and where he or she has been. That’s one of the dangerous things about forums and such: misunderstanding can be rampant and grow like a wild fire.
    Anyway, I really believe that a question that comes from a truly open heart wanting ot learn and grow should never offend, even if it is uncomfortable to answer. Sometimes people react poorly to a question when they themselves don’t want to think about the answer. I love that you are a advocate of open adoption. We need people who are walking this path and doing it well to teach us to do so.

  5. Well that might explain why you seemed a little preoccupied.

    While it is hard to take criticism, there is no shame in good intentions or the desire to learn and grow through asking delicate questions. You were very wise to realize that empathy is the antidote to shame in responding to your critics. And as for JoAnne, I have to believe that the understanding she gained outweighed the negativity from those who were offended.

  6. I’m sorry this has happened to you and twice in such a short amount of time. But, I also think it’s a risk anytime anyone tries to put something out there that addresses a group of people. And maybe even more so when it is done via words through a computer where tone, etc can be hard to convey. I’m glad you were able to turn the first situation around by going back and engaging the group again. Perhaps if everyone, not just you, had sought “first to understand, then be understood” it wouldn’t have spiraled into a mass of vitriol. I hope good things will also evolve from the second situation.

  7. I also hate it when that happens. when you put yourself out there and it comes back at you in the most unanticipated way.

    I think with this post you are helping others do exactly what you were trying to do in both instances: seek first to understand.

  8. I’ve seen at least two instances of bloggers being angry about and insulted by JoAnne’s questions because their understanding of what she was saying is not at all what I or you (or probably JoAnne) understood as the meaning, never mind the connotation, of the words.

    Sorry to hear that you’ve gotten caught in the crossfire with this and with the event. You’re dealing with them both wonderfully and admirably.

  9. I would like to point out that by vaguely mentioning a conversation that took place at a private forum, you leave those individuals open to vitrol from your readers here on your blog who don’t really even know the situation or what was actually said.

    I wasn’t following the posts re: Joanne’s question but I am sad her feelings were hurt.

  10. Wow, the second scenario actually hits home for me a little. This is the first Open Adoption Roundtable I felt like I might participate in, and I find the questions relevant as people around me are asking very similar questions. People not familiar with or touched by open adoption, I might add.

  11. Story of my life 🙂 – I always misjudge the subtext and end up sticking my foot in it…with the best of intentions. Sigh. Sorry to hear that you had fallout from what you had intended to be positive things.

    (I don’t think I agree with Amanda – you may have accidentally kicked a beehive, so to speak – I won’t blame you for not knowing it was there, and I really can’t blame the bees for stinging in response. And the retelling is illustrative of several things – how good intentions go awry, and how thinking before you respond is always a good idea. But look! Another example of the point you’re making, I suppose.)

  12. I think intent matters very much. If it didn’t matter, what would be the point? We can not always control how our words ate received. We can only control our intention and hope that we are being as true to that intention as we can be with our words and tone (which is so easily misconstrued when conveyed with written words). I frequently find my message being twisted into something I didn’t expect. I don’t know how I manage to miss the mark so completely but it happens more often than I’d like to admit. Luckily I’m decent at smoothing things over. I loved the way you handled the first situation. I’ll have to remember that the next time I mis-step (or mis-speak, I guess, is the more appropriate term).

  13. It is awesome how you responded to the situation on the forum! You’re such a caring and compassionate person. JoAnne sounds like a wonderful person too and I’m so sorry if I hurt her feelings in my comment! It sounds like her questions came from an open heart and she had only good intentions. Plus the questions did prompt dialogue about feelings and experiences.

  14. Words do matter and your words more than many, matter very much to me. I see this in lots of places, I don’t blog about serious things or things that might coe back to me for this reason. I have lots of opinions and ideas, but a very thin skin. Even in the land of infertility where I am more than familiar with the landscape I leave it to u and Mel and others to write the hard stuff…because I never know how it will be perceived.

    I’m so sorry this happened , esp to you, who never would intnetionwho was only ally hurt anyone and JoAnn was only looking for some answers.
    that post taught me so much I can’t imagine anyone taking offense.

  15. Rather than mire myself in what’s already done, I just want to say that I appreciate your class and grace, especially under duress. To be online at all is to open oneself to misinterpretation, and I always appreciate your desire and ability to maintain a cool head. <3 Sally

  16. Another point of view….., anytime someone blogs or is part of forums, this being misunderstood or attacked is always a risk, HOWEVER, is it just me or has the heat of the summer gotten to people because there have been a lot and I mean more than normal snarky, feelings being hurt, angry comments being lashed out everywhere and out of nowhere. Kind of weird if you ask me.

    I always appreciate people’s point of view through their experiences. It’s the only way I think I can grow and/or know why I hold my own views. I hope you always go the way your heart and words lead you!

  17. I echo all those that have said they believe that “intent matters.” I admire your candor in writing this post and appreciate how you have been able to reflect on and learn from this painful experience in your life.

    I really connected with this in your post Lori, “…proof that what you see and assume about others is what you see and assume in yourself.”

    Thank you for sharing and for continuing to be such an awesome example of how to approach difficult experiences in our life mindfully and with an open heart, just like the name of your blog.

  18. Ever since I started reading blogs regularly, I’ve been surprised at how snarky some people can be. I thought we left that all behind in high school. I just wish that everyone could be supportive of each other.

  19. I am so sorry that you were misunderstood so horribly.

    I know that it must have really pinched you. I don’t know which forum (the first incident) you are speaking of, but I guess that if the ladies did come around and respond to you privately and on the forum, then the hurt has been undone to some extent.

    And I am not clued to the second incident either or to JoAnne’s sensitive question, but I guess reading about it here or this post of yours must have sent the message across loud and clear.

    Take Care!

  20. For what it’s worth, I think that sometimes both sides are right in a conversation like this one. While I don’t know all of the context of the people responding to JoAnne’s questions (or generally taking offense with her questions), I suspect that the folks most upset are the most sensitive or vulnerable about the subject matter and aren’t we all at times, feeling very sensitive? I think as often is the case, people sometimes misrepresent themselves by using loaded words in their comments or blog posts when they respond to something that they’re passionate about, but perhaps at the core, their issue is that they were really treated badly in an open adoption relationship and isn’t that the crux of the matter after all? People want to be heard and understood (as you so wisely point out) and sometimes they way in which they try to communicate that can be more hurtful than intended. The best of intentions truly is the best. For what it’s worth I think I learned more about the subtleties and variations of open adoption by reading this this description of your experience.

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