Have you heard of the phrase “Empty vessels make the most noise”? It’s a proverb that means that those with the least talent and knowledge usually speak the most, speak the loudest, and create the most fuss–whatever that makes their presence felt as much as possible.
Empty vessels is used in the analogy because in physics, empty containers do create louder noises than filled ones. If you take two empty glasses, fill one up with water, and then blow into both glasses in turn, you’ll find that the empty glass creates a louder noise than the filled one. That’s because the empty space in it (the air column) allows sound waves to pass through easily and bounce off the sides of the glass, thereby creating an amplified vibration.
I’ve found this proverb to be extremely true in life. Often times, the people who are the fussiest with the most negative criticisms may not necessarily know more than others. It’s usually because there’s an emptiness in them echoing these noises, and this emptiness doesn’t necessarily have to be an emptiness of their intellect. It can be an emptiness in their heart, an emptiness in their life, an emptiness in their mind, or an emptiness in their self-worth — in turn creating the loud noises that we hear.
My Experience with “Loud” Comments
For example on my blog, I receive critical comments on an ongoing basis. The loudest of comments–i.e., the abrasive ones, not necessarily the longest–don’t usually have a point to add. Rather, they are usually vocal dissents that convey the commenters’ unhappiness, and my articles (sometimes myself) are simply their dartboards at the moment.
Consider these comments I’ve received before, most of them in recent months:
Example A: Reply to Do You Dread Growing Older?, an article I wrote in 2009 (I was 25 then) about growing older and how there’s no need to dread it:
Example B: Reply to How I Used to Be Afraid of Intimidating Men and Why It Does Not Faze Me Anymore, my article about how I used to dial down my personality around men, but subsequently realized that I should own my true self instead:
Example C: Reply to 10,000 Hours To Develop Talent, my article on the importance of investing time to develop your skills so as to achieve talent status. I shared my personal as well as others’ examples of this principle at work:
Example D: And one last one, a reply to Top 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV, my article on the negative effects of watching TV and what one can do instead:
“Loud” Workshop Participants
Then there are my workshops, where I get “loud” participants from time to time. By “loud,” I’m not referring to vocal or expressive attendees (in fact I love such participants), but workshop trolls who keep interjecting and disrupting, thereby preventing the workshop from progressing.
For example, once I had a public talk where I was invited to share my entrepreneurial journey. There was this attendee who was very hostile toward me, constantly interjecting, making snarky jabs, hogging the floor, and talking about himself. An example of his jabs would be when an attendee (a different one) asked me if I read books for inspiration. I acknowledged that I rarely read books but rather get my inspiration from around me (including websites and people), after which X curtly interjected with, “And [yet] you sell books,” suggesting some form of contradiction (but there isn’t).
While I tried to speak to him after the talk, I got more of the same treatment, where he would give curt and somewhat judgmental responses, carry a terse look, and stare with angry eyes. I simply let him be and moved on to other attendees after that.
Noise Agents in Personal Life
And then there are the personal friends and acquaintances turned noise agents. While not common as I stay away from naysayers as much as possible, I’ve been badmouthed, misrepresented, and put down before. I’ve also had negative and distasteful comments served to me before too. Some time back, I had a friend criticizing my work and giving negative labels to the domains of personal development and life coaching, which shocked me as it was a very one-dimensional view. And then recently, I met someone who behaved very hostilely toward me, even though we didn’t know each other at all.
Reeling from the “Noise”
In the past when I faced such negative encounters, I would feel bad about them. I mean I would brush them aside if they were totally ridiculous like the blog comments above, but I would otherwise feel negative and spend a good chunk of time mulling over them. I always feel like I need to be responsible for everything and this included the negative comments I received and negative people I encountered. I’d feel like I was responsible for the person’s negativity (even though I didn’t cause it), and that I needed to act on it.
So during this mulling period, I would ask myself, Why did he/she act that way? Is there something about me that made him/her do that? What could I have done to address/prevent this? Is there something wrong with me? I would ask these questions over and over, until I arrived at satisfiable answers.
My default thinking would always be, They are right, I am wrong, I’m a bad person, I wish I could have done things differently and prevented the conflict, and finally… It’s all my fault. And “It’s all my fault” was a burden that I carried in me for a long, long time.
Even Ken (my husband) would notice this, for I would often initiate discussions about abrasive comments and unpleasant people whom I just met and go into deep thought about them. Sometimes I could do this as frequent as a few times a day, for over a week, because I would still feel bad about the situation and want to identify a solution to prevent such conflicts.
The troubling thing was that I would often conclude that I should do X and Y and I shouldn’t do A and B, just to cater to said people. This was to avoid conflict and to avoid incurring the wrath/unhappiness of said people, even when I technically did not create the conflict.
A Recent Incident
So the same thing happened recently when I encountered a workshop troll. This troll made a lot of offhand remarks and self-victimizing statements during class, even though I had provided him with guiding steps to break out of his problem.
As it was a workshop series with multiple classes, I would mull over his comments after each class, work out a plan to address his issues, and then work that into my next class. While a standard class design should take me two days, each class in this series would take me a week as I obsessed about a million permutations of things that could go wrong due to the the troll participant and planned counter-solutions for them.
Now that’d be great if my efforts made a difference. Except that they didn’t. In fact, they made no difference at all. The troll participant behaved in the exact same way right up to the last class, with his quibbles, offhanded remarks and disengaged attitude toward creating the change in his life.
Despite all my time spent catering the class content partly for him, addressing his quibbles, and giving him personalized help, he didn’t act on any of that, but instead continued his negativity spiel.
This made me realize something.
The first thing I realized was that the troll didn’t act on my help because it wasn’t the point of his grumbles. Rather, he was making those offhand remarks because of his own issues–independent of the workshop. It actually didn’t matter how the workshop had been designed or conducted, because he was never taking it to resolve his issues–he was taking it to delay working on them. In fact, all other participants actually transformed very remarkably throughout the weekly classes except for him where he would always be complaining about something each session.
However, I had spent an immense amount of time and energy making sense out of his comments and trying to turn them into constructive steps. And the reason I did that, was because he was louder than the rest:
- Louder, by way of his jarring attitude,
- Louder, by way of his inopportune remarks,
- Louder, by way of the frequency of said remarks, and
- Louder, by way of how he stood out starkly against the other participants who were eager, engaged, and with a strong desire to learn.
Because he was louder than others, he got my attention, and hence my time and energy.
This then led to my next realization: that just because someone is louder doesn’t mean the person should get (more of) your attention. That just because someone is louder doesn’t mean his/her words are of more value nor importance than others. And that just because someone is louder… it may actually mean nothing at all.
- Loud doesn’t mean important or more important.
- Loud doesn’t mean valuable or more valuable.
- And loud doesn’t mean any more deserving of attention (than others).
What This Means for Us
So what does this mean for us?
The thing is many of us tend to allocate our attention to critical, rude, abrasive, and fussy people — people with “loud” comments, “loud” reactions — because they tend to be the loudest people we know. After all, what’s more audible will get our attention, and what gets our attention will get our time and energy.
It’s like what I wrote before in Are You Focusing on the Black Dot?: when there’s a black dot on a piece of white paper, our attention naturally goes to the black dot that’s the contrasting spot on the otherwise pure surface.
However, just because someone is loud doesn’t mean he/she is more deserving of our attention. In fact, his/her comments and actions may well have the least value and importance, because his/her loudness may stem from an inner emptiness–an emptiness that has nothing to do with you or me. As the proverb goes, “Empty vessels make the most noise.“
So what this means for us is…
- Recognize that loud doesn’t mean more important. Sometimes, loud may well indicate emptiness and non-importance, as opposed to importance and value. In which case, it should deserve less, even none of our attention!
- Learn to differentiate between good advice and destructive noise. There are often tons of people trying to tell us who to be and what to do. Not all advice is good or right for us though; some may well be noise. When listening to an advice, determine if it (a) resonates with you, (b) aligns with your values, and (c) will support you in your higher goals. If an advice is “no” on all three counts, then it’s probably noise–abandon it.
- As opposed to listening to the loudest people because they are loud and trying to get our attention, consciously shift our attention to the right people. These are the people whose words matter to us, who know what they’re doing and where they’re going, whose knowledge we seek, and/or who are on the right path in life.
- Realize that the “right” people can be quiet. Quiet in the sense that they don’t shout for our attention, but instead quietly support us, help us, and encourage along the way. I call these people the harpists: people playing melodious music in the background, music that is so serene and easy on our ears that we don’t even know that it’s there! These people quietly enact their power, which is why they don’t stick out like a sore thumb but blend into the background. Identify these people, be conscious of their presence, and focus our attention on them.
- Use the 99:1 ratio when dealing with loud people. If there are loud people in your life and their words tend to be empty (i.e., of little value), then I recommend using the 99:1 ratio. Instead of giving these loudest noises our highest attention (which is our default reaction), deliberately dial down our attention for them to only 1% of our consciousness, such they become no more than a little squeak. And then dial up the quiet serenades of the harpists such that they fill up 99% of our mind.
Example: If you receive one ugly criticism from an unreasonable co-worker this week, while you constantly receive positive compliments from friends and colleagues, focus 99% of your energy on these compliments and only 1% on that ugly criticism. If you find yourself harping on that one negative criticism, it’s because you’re allocating 99% of your energy on the critique and only 1% on the positive stuff–reverse this allocation. This 1% energy should be used to derive positive lessons and constructive feedback from the critique, for self-improvement purposes. The end effect should be one where you’re listening to the positive melodies in your life 99% of the time, and only allocating 1% of your energy to loud (and often times unconstructive) noises.
- Use the harpists’ melodies to spur you forward. While we can develop ourselves based on negative criticism, I’ve found that growth based on positivity is much more powerful and self-fueling. That’s because when we adjust ourselves based on criticism, we’re forever correcting “issues”; however when we build ourselves based on positive feedback, we tap into our inner power and learn to develop into our full self–similar to what I shared in my Stop Shaming, Start Praising post. So, focus on the encouragement and positive feedback you receive with the 99:1 ratio principle. It’ll take you a long way forward.
- Be empathetic to empty vessels. As for the loud people, the empty vessels, remember their loudness stem from a place of emptiness. As with the quote from Peaceful Warrior (movie), “The people who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it the most.” Be empathetic to them; render help where you can. At the same time, know that you aren’t responsible for their emptiness, and don’t let their loudness take over your life.
For more on dealing with negative, unsupportive people:
- 8 Tips to Tackle Naysayers
- 8 Helpful Ways to Deal with Critical People
- 5 Tips to Deal with Negative Criticism [Video]
- How to Deal with Rude People (series)
- How to Deal with Unsupportive Friends and Family
- 9 Reasons Why Criticism Rocks (and Some of the Worst Comments I’ve Ever Received in Running my Blog)
- Stand Up for Yourself (My Response to a Hate Comment Against Me)