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 makes their presence felt the most.
Why Do Empty Vessels Make the Most Noise?
Empty vessels are used in the analogy because in physics, empty containers create louder noises than filled ones. If you take two empty glasses, fill one up with water, and then blow into both glasses, you’ll find that the empty glass creates a louder noise than the filled one. That’s because the air column (i.e. the empty space) allows sound waves to pass through and bounce off the sides of the glass, which creates an amplified vibration.
I find this proverb very true in real life. Often times, people with the most negative and loudest responses may not know more than others. They are loud only because there is an emptiness in them echoing these noises, such as
- An emptiness in their mind,
- An emptiness in their heart,
- An emptiness in their life,
- An emptiness in their spirit, or
- An emptiness in their self-worth,
— hence creating the loud noises that we hear.
My Experience with “Noisy” Comments
On my blog, I often receive critical comments. The loudest comments — meaning the abrasive comments, not the longest — usually don’t have a point to add. Rather, they convey the commenters’ unhappiness and I am simply their dartboards at the moment.
Consider these comments I’ve gotten before:
1) Comment for Do You Dread Growing Older?, an article that I wrote in 2009 (I was 25 then) about growing older and why there’s no need to dread it:
2) Comment for Why I Used to Be Afraid of Intimidating Men, my article about how I used to dial down my personality around men but later realized that I should own my true self instead:
3) Comment for 10,000 Hours To Develop Talent, my article on the importance of investing time to develop your skills. I shared my personal example as well as others’ examples of this principle at work:
4) And one last one, comment for Top 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV, my article on the negative effects of watching TV and we can do about them:
“Noisy” Workshop Participants
Then there are my workshops where I get “noisy” participants from time to time. By “noisy,” I don’t mean outspoken participants (I love these participants). What I’m referring to are workshop trolls who keep interjecting and disrupting the session.
I remember one time when I had a hostile attendee at a public talk. For some reason, he kept interjecting while I was talking and making negative remarks. An example would be when a different attendee asked if I read books for inspiration. I said that I rarely read books but get my inspiration from around me (including reading websites and people), after which X curtly interjected with, “And yet you sell books,” suggesting there was some form of contradiction (there isn’t). To begin with, I do not sell books per se and I never said that I was an author at the talk. For him to interject with such a presumptuous comment was odd.
While I tried to speak to him after the talk, I got more of the same treatment. He was a very tense, angry man and kept giving curt and judgmental responses. His wife in comparison was much nicer, and even corrected her husband when he made another presumptuous remark when I was trying to engage him in a conversation. I simply let him be and moved on to other attendees.
Noisy Agents in Personal Life
Then there are acquaintances and on rare occasion, friends who turn out to be negative noise agents. I was once backstabbed by a “friend” which I wrote about in this post. I once met a business acquaintance who was very arrogant and kept making judgmental remarks about me and the other people he worked with. I have also received my fair share of negative remarks from naysayers, critical people, and energy vampires.
In the past when I faced such encounters, I would brood over them. I’d feel responsible for their negativity (even though I didn’t cause it), and that I should address that.
I would wonder, Why did he/she act that way? Is there something wrong about me that made him/her do that? What could I have done to prevent this?
My default thinking was, They are right, I am wrong, and It’s all my fault. And “It’s all my fault” was a burden that I kept carrying in me.
A Recent Incident
So the same thing happened lately when I encountered a workshop troll. This troll made a lot of offhand remarks during class even though I had provided him with the steps to break out of his problem.
As it was a course series, I would mull over his comments after each class, work out a plan to address his issues, and then integrate that into my next class. While a standard class design takes me a few days, each class in this series took me a week as I thought about all the negative comments that this person would say during class, and planned solutions to address them.
Now it would be great if my efforts made a difference. Except that they didn’t. In fact, they didn’t make any difference at all. This participant behaved in the exact same way right up to the last class, with his quibbles and disengaged attitude toward changing his life.
Despite spending all my time to cater the class content to him and giving him personalized help, he didn’t act on it but continued his negativity. This made me realize something.
My first realization was that this guy didn’t act on my help because it wasn’t the point of his grumbles. Rather, he made those negative remarks because of his issues. It didn’t matter how I conducted the course because he didn’t take it to resolve his issues – he took it to delay working on them. While all the other participants made positive progress in each class, he would complain about something.
Yet I had spent a lot of energy to make sense of his comments. I did so because he was louder than the other folks. Louder, in terms of
- his negative attitude,
- his disruptive comments, and
- how often he made such comments.
He stood out like a sore thumb from other participants who were eager to learn. Because he was loud, he got my attention, and hence my time and energy.
This led to my second realization: Just because someone is loud doesn’t mean they deserve your attention. It doesn’t mean their words have more value than others. Just because someone is loud… it doesn’t mean anything at all. In short,
- Loud doesn’t mean something is important or more important than others.
- Loud doesn’t mean something deserves more attention than the other things.
As the saying goes, empty vessels make the most noise. And empty vessels shouldn’t get our attention just because they are noisy.
What This Means for Us
It’s like what I wrote in Are You Focusing on the Black Dot?: When there’s a black dot on a piece of white paper, our attention goes to the black dot. Because it contrasts with the otherwise white and perfect surface.
But just because someone is loud doesn’t mean they are more deserving of our attention. If anything, their comments/actions may well have the least value, because their loudness may stem from an emptiness within. An emptiness that has nothing to do with you or me. Because “Empty vessels make the most noise.”
So how can you deal with empty vessels? I have 7 important tips:
- Realize 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 or even none of our attention!
- Learn to differentiate between good advice and destructive noise. There are often many people trying to tell us who to be and what to do. Not all advice is good or right for us though; some may 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 achieving 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, shift our attention to the right people. These are the people whose words matter, who know what they’re doing, whose knowledge we seek, and who are on the right path in life.
- Realize 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 us along the way. I call these people the harpists. They are people who play melodious music in the background, music that is so serene that we don’t know that it’s there. These people quietly express 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 have little value, use what I call the 99:1 ratio. Instead of giving these loudest noises our highest attention (which is our default reaction), deliberately dial down your attention for them to only 1% of your consciousness, such they become no more than a little squeak. Dial up the quiet serenades of the harpists such that they fill up 99% of your mind.
Example: If you received one ugly criticism from an unreasonable co-worker, focus 99% of your energy on the compliments that your co-workers and friends give you, and only 1% on that ugly criticism. If you harp 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 from the critique, for self-improvement purposes. In the end, you should listen to the positive melodies in your life 99% of the time, and only allocate 1% of your energy to loud noises (for learning purposes).
- Use the harpists’ melodies to spur you forward. While we can develop ourselves based on negative criticism, I find that personal growth that is rooted in positivity is more powerful and self-fueling. That’s because when we change ourselves based on criticism, we’re forever correcting “issues.” But when we build ourselves based on positive feedback, we tap into our inner power and grow into our highest self — which is what I shared in my Stop Shaming, Start Praising post. So, focus on encouragement and positive feedback with the 99:1 ratio principle. It will take you a long way forward.
- Be empathetic to empty vessels. As for the loud people, the empty vessels, remember that their loudness stems from a place of emptiness. As with the quote from Peaceful Warrior (a movie), “The people who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it the most.” Be empathetic. Render help where you can. At the same time, know that you are not responsible for their emptiness, and don’t let their emptiness take over your life.
How to deal with negative and 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