How can I be more helpful?
July 23, 2011 12:31 PM   Subscribe

My default response when someone has a problem is to fix the problem. I'd like to change that.

I'm meeting more and more people who just want to vent and/or complain, and who don't want their problems to be solved. Or maybe I'm just more aware of it. Anyway, my usual way of helping isn't helpful to these people. So, I'd like to learn how to be more helpful in these situations.

Generally, when someone complains to me, I problem solve. A friend was complaining that she had no money, and I figured out that she was paying WAY too much tax. She's now getting a large sum of money back and is pretty pleased about that. A colleague had an abusive customer at work, so I offered some tips on dealing with such people. She's now handling such situations better than before. I'm more likely to help you change your car tyre than I am to listen to you moan about it.

I'm finding that sometimes, though, people just want to moan that they have no money or gripe about rude customers. My way of showing sympathy isn't helpful in this situation and can make things worse - some people feel that I'm criticising them when I offer advice. I'm really not trying to, I'm just trying to help them as best I can.

My problem is that I don't know any other way to behave. While I was growing up, if someone had a problem it was either ignored or the individual was told to just get on with it and deal with it. I don't know how to be more sympathetic, if that is the right word, because I've never had a role model for that. I don't even know how "tea and sympathy" works.

I've tried being silent and letting them unload, but is this the right thing to do? I've tried to put myself in their situation, but I usually want help changing the car tyre rather than to moan about it. I can't seem to get into the correct headspace to figure out what they need. I'm generally pretty reticent about things like rude customers because I don't want to go through the situation again, which is what happens if I vent. I realise that unloading helps people feel better, but I just can't get my head round the concept. Venting just makes me feel worse.

I'm looking for suggestions as to how I can learn to not fix a problem and be guided by what the other person needs. A book on this subject would be great (long shot I know), but tips or films or blog posts or whatever are all welcome. Obviously, sometimes people want problem solving help, but what should I do in situations when they don't (very explicit suggestions will be great)? Other than directly asking the individual, is there any way to tell what they want?
posted by Solomon to Human Relations (31 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried mentally "prepping" yourself? If someone comes to you to vent about an issue, catch yourself before the wheels start churning for a solution. "[X] has come to me because they need someone to listen. I can help them best through listening."
posted by Ashen at 12:40 PM on July 23, 2011

My husband is just like you. In our relationship we've learned to start a moan-fest with "Honey, can I just vent at you for awhile?" Then I know he just needs sympathy or he knows I just want to bitch for awhile and hear "That really sucks for you. I'm sorry it's happening."

Sometimes I'll start complaining and he'll flat out ask me if this is something he can help with or if I just need him to be supportive. At least with your good friends that might be something you can start doing too.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:41 PM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

People generally want to feel understood, and they want the message 'the way that you are feeling makes sense and is understandable.' If you can give a statement that signifies that you understand why they are feeling the way that they do, and that you respect that they feel that way, it's a good start. Bonus - if you're right in your interpretation, they'll generally correct you.

You may also want to ask them what alternatives they have already done or are considering, thereby making it clear you know they're not helpless or incompetent.

"Oh man, being strapped for cash is so stressful - what do you think you want to do?"
"Dude, that customer sounds like a dick... How do you usually handle it when he goes off like that?"

posted by namesarehard at 12:43 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

right = wrong. Heh.
posted by namesarehard at 12:43 PM on July 23, 2011

You know, one more thing, ask questions to help them explain to you what is upsetting. Not so much 'why' it's upsetting, but 'what is upsetting about it.' There's a subtle difference there that's just less judgmental.
posted by namesarehard at 12:45 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Think about these situations as the person telling you a story. They don't want someone to say 'Well, she could probably dig through some public records, maybe she should ask a reference librarian for Rumpelstiltskin's name,' or 'How could that little girl not know the difference between her grandmother and a wolf?!' They want someone to tell the story to and to appreciate it and react in sympathy to the protagonist (them).

Sometimes people know that they could have handled a situation better, and they don't want to be reminded. Sometimes people know that there are things that they can do to fix a situation, but those things are hard or time consuming or just plain stupid and it feels unfair that they have to go through hoops to live their lives. You likely understand this. My point is, let them tell thier story, don't just jump to the end.
posted by Garm at 12:45 PM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

You must be really frustrated by their behavior. I know when I try to help people, and they brush it off, and keep on whining, it really irritates me, too.

(Did you see what I did there?)

Can you study them, and the feelings that they're expressing in their speech, tone of voice, and , and try to mirror it back to them? "Oh, I hate that, that's so frustrating." "Oh, goodness, you must be very sad." "The pain must drive you bonkers."

Mostly what people want when they vent to you is to feel that they have been heard.

Gretchen Rubin has a great post about this at the Happiness Project: Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings.
posted by BrashTech at 12:46 PM on July 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

I'm like you in a lot of ways and find having to listen to people vent and deny my feelings stressful. So I stopped doing it. Then I became known as a person to go to if you wanted problems solved, which made me feel good. It also greatly diminished the stress of dealing with venters.

My point here is that denying your own needs may not be helpful to you. You're a problem solver and that's a useful and good thing to be, so don't hide from it. Instead, apply those skills to solving the problem of dealing with venters and the various sub genres. Be helpful in the way that's most satisfying for you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:11 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm meeting more and more people who just want to vent and/or complain, and who don't want their problems to be solved.

That's... probably not the case. I mean, yes, there are always going to be some people who are clinging on to their problem with an iron grip because they're getting something out of it, but most of the time? Of course people want their problems to be solved. They just don't see you as the person to do the solving.

It's more about how you come across to someone dealing with a thorny situation. When they're venting to you, and you offer a solution, and they don't want it, you might imagine that they're thinking 'Why yes, that would indeed fix my problem, but I don't want my problem fixed!'. What they're far more likely to be thinking, however, is 'I've spent weeks trying to fix this, I've thought through every possible solution and none of them will help, and now this person who knows approximately 2% about my problem is interrupting my stress-relieving rant by telling me to do the superficially perfect thing that I obviously would have done on day 1 if that would have helped." That's not really about your own motivations (good though they are) or about your problem-solving record (which might indeed be fantastic). But you don't have a magic problem-solving wand, you know?

Sometimes problems just can't be easily or quickly solved, and in those cases, what the venters of the world are asking from you is a recognition that that's the case and that their situation is indeed unpleasant.

So try this: rather than looking at it as 'sometimes people don't want their problems fixed, what can you do', look at it in terms of your own limitations. If someone's venting, ask yourself 'Is this something I have expert knowledge/helpful resources to fix which this person doesn't have access to?' If the answer's 'no', but you can think of something that might help anyway, ask yourself 'Given the relative intelligence of this person and their obvious familiarity with their own situation, is this the kind of thing they've probably thought of already?' And if the answer's 'yes', just nod and sigh and make 'eesh, life sucks, what can you do' noises and let them vent.
posted by Catseye at 1:12 PM on July 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

Sometimes not saying something can make the talker feel like you aren't listening (even when you are). Sometimes it's a simple as saying something like, "That sounds really frustrating" or, "Wow, that sucks. Sounds rough."

Sometimes people just want validation, and you can give it to them pretty easily.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:20 PM on July 23, 2011

Reflective listening is a good way to help other people feel heard. I can't suggest a good book, but the wikipedia page has a decent summary and links to this PDF.

Active listening is a broader term for something similar.

In my experience, about one in 50 people seriously dislike reflective/active listening! It feels condescending to them or weird. Don't let it phase you, just note that that person hates it and don't use it with them. Most people really do like it a lot.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:20 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with namesarehard that often what people are looking for is validation - feeling understood and like their feelings make sense to someone else. Something that's helped me get better at validating is reading about all of the "six levels of validation" from Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Level 1 = "staying awake," i.e. nodding and making eye contact to show you're listening.
Level 2 = reflecting back what the person is saying: "Oh, so you're upset because that customer was mean to you."
Level 3 = imagining what else the person could be feeling: "If someone said that to me, I'd be embarrassed, which would make me even more furious!"
Level 4 = saying you think the person's feelings make sense in light of their history: "It's so important to you to feel like you're doing well at work, so of course you were upset when that customer criticized you."
Level 5 = saying the person's reaction is reasonable/effective given the situation: "It makes sense to me that you'd need to take a minute to yourself after that happened - anyone would."
Level 6 = being radically genuine and treating them like a real person: "Wow, that sucks. I don't even know what to say."

Obviously you don't necessarily want to use all of these in every conversation - usually you start at the lower numbered ones and then bring in the higher ones when it seems useful. It's amazing the amount of relief a well-placed Level 2 or Level 3 statement can give someone. When I was TAing and had students demand I raise their grade, sometimes all I'd have to do is say, "I hear it's really frustrating to you that you got a worse grade here than you usually do" - and they'd say, "Yeah, that's it, thanks" and leave!
posted by synchronia at 1:21 PM on July 23, 2011 [24 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a whiner. After an upsetting incident, even if I already know what I'm going to do to fix it, I still want to tell someone what happened and get a little sympathy. Advice means I am not getting to talk about my feelings, which I sometimes *really* want to do.

Sometimes I want to just talk about something until *I* figure out what to do.

And sometimes, I really do want advice - after I'm done laying out all the essential points. The way I explain something when I want advice is different from the way I explain something when I am venting. When I want advice, I make sure to mention all the relevant items that someone needs to give good advice. When I *do* want advice, I nearly always say so.

This is how I would handle me if I were in your shoes:
1. Listen for a while. Make some sympathetic noises. "Aww, honey. That really sucks." Or "Wow, what did you do after that?" (I really, REALLY want to be heard. I can't even explains what it means to me to have someone really listen.)

2. If it's bothering you that I'm in helpless whiny mode, you can shift me into problem solving model. "Holy smokes, Batman! That's quite a problem you've got there. What are you going to do?" I'll see you as my cheerleader and part of the solution.

3. If you really aren't in the mood to hear me whine, gently deflect "I'm sorry you had a sucky day. I'm trying to cheer myself up as well. What can do we do that's fun?" I'll get it.

4. If you desperately want to give advice: "Can I give you some advice? I have a thought that might be helpful, but if you are just in vent mode I understand." I'll appreciate your tact and even if I do want to vent some more first, I'll want to know what you have to say.

5. The other awesome thing someone has said after listening to me whine is "Oh, babe. That sounds stressful. But I just know you can handle it, you're really smart."

There's nothing like really good thoughtful advice at the right time. There's also nothing like having someone else really hear and know and understand what's going on in your head and heart. I try with my friends to balance the two, though I admit I often talk when I should listen, and listen when I should talk. Sometimes I find it VERY hard to listening to whining and I just want to slap an advice band-aid on it and move on.
posted by bunderful at 1:28 PM on July 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

Very often, when people vent, they are exploring their emotional responses to every aspect of the problem. This is always portrayed as being antithetical to solving it. In fact, analyzing the problem is an important part of solving it. The reason this is discouraged (in general, not by you specifically) is usually out of a desire (on the part of the generic "they", not you specifically) to see the person fail to solve the problem.

Of course games of "ain't it awful" are irksome, but it's worse to be treated as if you were playing "ain't it awful" when what you were really trying to do was think it through - as you've experienced yourself, OP.

So being silent and letting them unload is good. You might try a few prompting questions and some "I can hear your frustration about this" and so on.

If at any point they come right out and ask "what should I do" or you get the sense they do want advice/suggestions, then of course give it. But if you go in with the assumption that venting isn't the antithesis of problem-solving, that will help a lot already.
posted by tel3path at 1:31 PM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Why? People who don't want solutions, don't really need your attention.

Smile and nod, and let them vent. But when you stop offering solutions, just give up.
posted by pla at 2:23 PM on July 23, 2011

You don't need to act like a therapist to be sympathetic. You just need to express some emotion back to the person. For example:

Them: "My colleague did so and so at work!"
You: "Are you serious?! What did you do?"
Them: "Well I did this and that, but then, this other thing!"
You: "That's bullshit!"
Them: "I know, right!"
You: "I told you that bitch crazy!"
Them: "And now I'm feeling all (blah blah blah)"
You: "Mmm hmm."
Them: "...blah blah..."
You: "Mmm hmm."
Them: "Yeah, so that was my day."
You: "Well, maybe she will die in a ball of fire on the way home."
Them: (giggle)
You: :) [WINNING]
posted by blargerz at 3:02 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Like you, I fight a tendency to be the Mr. fix-it guy. I started to realize that people sometimes got annoyed and/or became argumentative. As I've gotten busier in life, I frankly began to feel like I shouldn't be an unpaid consultant in most cases, although I'm still willing to offer advice to someone who really needs it.

As has been said, listen. Listen a long time, and be sympathetic. Then, before you give the first shred of anything that might possibly be considered advice, ask "do you want my advice?" or "do you want my opinion?" If they go off on another tangent, you have your answer. Generally, if they're really seeking advice, they'll jump on it.

Most people really don't think that clearly or listen that well. The exceptions usually make it pretty clear that they really do want some constructive advice. An example of both kinds:

I have a dentist friend who has said things like "my practice has been a little slow this year." I start dispensing marketing advice left and right; it all ends up being rebuffed because she thinks marketing is sleazy and beneath her. Turns out she's saying this in the same vein as "looks like rain." But because I start with the wrong premise (she wants help), we talk at cross-purposes and annoy each other.

OTOH, I had a friend who owned a business who wanted to sell it and go to work for the new owners. I had done the same thing (sold a business and gone to work for the new owners), so he called me and said "I want your advice on something..." We ended up meeting at a restaurant; he's got spreadsheets in hand, and we puzzle it all out together. Number 1, I actually had expertise he respected; Number 2, we're very close friends and have done a lot of business together (his company was a vendor to mine, and now the company he works for is a vendor to the one I work for); Number 3, he's a smart guy and a good listener and thinker. ALL three things made for a rewarding experience for me; I was honored that he valued my opinion, and I think it helped him a lot; he made a satisfactory deal and still works there.

But that kind of case is the exception. Most people just like to complain.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:56 PM on July 23, 2011

Best answer: 1. Often, people making a mistake know that what they're doing is suboptimal. They're doing it out of fear, anxiety or habit, and not for rational reasons. Telling them "Here's the smart thing to do" is unhelpful; at best, it's telling them something they already know, and at worse, it's exacerbating their anxiety. That's because....

2. People who know they're screwing up are often seriously insecure about it. Let's say a guy is feeling inadequate because he isn't good at picking up women. Telling him "Here's how you could have salvaged that bad date you were talking about" is gonna have roughly the same effect as saying "Hey, check it out — I'm great with women and you're not!" Even if he squirrels the information away for future reference, he's likely to resent you for it. And also....

3. Even for someone who's perfectly rational in their approach, and perfectly secure in their self-esteem, problem solving is hard work. It's tiring. A person who comes to you with a problem is very likely to be exhausted, worn out, worn down and sick of dealing with it. Telling them "Great! Let's problem-solve!" is like telling someone who's just run a marathon "Great! Now let's paint the garage!"

All of which means that if you want to help, you have to be a bit more flexible in your approach. Sometimes the right thing to say is "I can help! Let's fix this right now!" But sometimes it's "You need a break. Let's do something relaxing, and later when you're feeling up to it I might be able to help with the problem." Sometimes it's "You're smart. I trust you. You can totally solve this problem on your own." Sometimes it's "Oh, who cares? So you got yourself into a bit of a jam! Doesn't matter, I still think you're awesome."

Unfortunately, with people you don't know well, it can sort of be trial-and-error to find the right approach. But if "Here lemme help" hasn't worked with Friend #37 in the past, then the next time Friend #37 comes around with a tale of woe you might try "Okay let's go watch a movie and take your mind off it" instead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:39 PM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Personally, I just ask. Nicely, and sincerely, "Would you like help/an idea/some advice, or do you just need to vent?" I've only had one person take it amiss. (and that person thinks of himself as not being a venter but is seriously the biggest venter I know, but any time you so much as hint he's venting, he gets offended. Oops, didn't realize.)

For a little more perspective on the helpfulness of venting -- I'm more of a fixer, but I vent primarily in two situations. The first is when I'm involved in interpersonal drama, which I hate and don't cope very well with emotionally. It makes me SUPER-stressed. This kind of situation I often need to take to a trusted friend to blow off all my stress, anger, and steam, so that I can deal with the situation in a productive, adult manner. I mean, basically, let's say I'm dealing with a mean lunatic in a professional situation. Obviously it is not productive for me to call them a mean lunatic, to lose my temper at them, etc. But mean lunatic has crossed me and I am UPSET and my initial, gut response is to express that upset, strike back at mean lunatic, be passive-aggressive, whatever it is. Instead, I act like an adult in the moment, but release all the frustration later on in a venting session. (Or I vent first, and then go act like an adult.) It really helps to get that all OUT so it doesn't come out at the wrong moment, and to get validation that mean lunatic is in the wrong and you are in the right even though you are going to have to go appease mean lunatic and be the bigger person. You see what I mean. In that case, I've already SOLVED the problem -- I've dealt with it, or I know how I'm going to deal with it -- but I need the release valve to get the frustration out. As part of the problem solving.

The second is similar, it's when you have one of those days where EVERYTHING goes wrong. Nothing huge, all fixable, but you're feeling run down and out of steam because of the relentless parade of shit. Again, I've either fixed or know how to fix all the problems, but sometimes when I have a day like that I want to vent for a bit of sympathy so I can release those feelings of frustration (that are not at all productive while calling the tow truck, fixing the faucet, finding the lost wallet, etc.) that I've been smashing down all day to cope with the crap. Once I can let it go I can move on.

People also need to tell stories to help themselves understand what happened. The mere practice of narrating and framing the story for someone else helps them process and understand and get at their own feelings and emotions and so on. So that's another way that venting is a way to "fix" ... or get on the road to fixing.

If the venters in your life normally take care of business, they're "just" venting and probably don't need help, beyond having their venting heard.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:46 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: People cannot listen and respond to logic when they are emotionally distraught. It's possible they *do* want help with their problems, but first they need to vent, hear some supportive, comforting words to calm them down, and THEN hear your solution.

Try listening and reacting to their feelings, rather than their words. Practice Active Listening. For instance:

Them: "She always does this!"
You: you sound really frustrated
Them: Well, sure, because she's just keeps being so unreasonable!
You: I'm sorry this keeps happening to you.
Them: I wish I knew what to do!

You: Would you like a suggestion?
Them: Well...yeah, I guess so.

Alternate scenario (this one will be harder for you!):
You: Would you like a suggestion?
Them: Well, no, not really. I mean, this is just the way she is, you know?
You: nodding, silence.
posted by misha at 5:54 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

People also need to tell stories to help themselves understand what happened. The mere practice of narrating and framing the story for someone else helps them process and understand and get at their own feelings and emotions and so on. So that's another way that venting is a way to "fix" ... or get on the road to fixing.

posted by bunderful at 6:00 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice in this thread. I will only add that

"That sucks! What are you going to do about it?"

goes a long, long way.
posted by squasher at 6:24 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is me. My tolerance for wallowing/whining/venting is ZERO. I don't do it and I can't stand it in others. I see it as a complete and utter waste of time- why take an hour to wail and moan when you could take that same hour and come up with a plan? I appreciate the techniques outlined here and will use them the next time this happens to me. But I will never be able to understand the venting mindset. Sucks 'cuz I live with one. Sigh.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:31 PM on July 23, 2011

Best answer: Volunteer for a phone hotline service. They will train you in building rapport for 10 or 15 minutes before providing assistance, and you will meet plenty of people on the hotline whose problems you just can't solve, and who wouldn't thank you for solving their problems for them anyway.

If you don't want to go to that much trouble, it's basically reflective listening. Any good book on Rogerian psychotherapy should explain how to do it. But it's very helpful to get training with specific examples and feedback from people with a lot of practice in it.
posted by Coventry at 6:34 PM on July 23, 2011

Well, sometimes the problems aren't that fixable! By complaining they are trying to help the part of themselves that gets kind of emotional about it. If work requires dealing with customers, sometimes the customers are obnoxious and horrible. There's no plan that is going to stop the occasional customer from being that way. And you can't tell them that and still have a job, most places.

Also, when someone thinks they can always fix a problem... that can come off as being a know-it-all... maybe consider that you don't know enough and that the person complaining has considered the options for changing and decided the status quo is the best option among those available? Having a job where you have to vent outside of work about awful customers might not be a problem that needs fixing - it's just the downside of what is otherwise a decent job.

I also agree with Brandon in that you should say so if listening to endless complaining is causing you stress.
posted by citron at 8:35 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am the type of person people like to vent to. As said above, what vent-ers want is a good listener, and they want acknowledgement of their feelings and experiences. People vent not because they want a specific solution (at that time); they vent as a way to release feelings about a situation. They feel bad, they want their friend to acknowledge that. And that acknowledgment makes them feel better.

if you find people are venting to you a lot, it might mean you are a good listener. (or have the appearance of one, heh). Most of the time, just listening and making acknowledgement noises and comments is enough (really?...that's must have felt so bad....). The other thing that helps when you don't know what to say is to ask questions: "what did you say after that?"... ."were you surprised ?"........"what do you you will do the next time you see her?"

Basically, getting people to express how they are feeling and explain what happened will work wonders towards them figuring out their own solutions, too. (kind of how therapy works).

A way to offer your own advice without seeming overbearing is to phrase it as a question:

"Do you think she got angry at you because she was having a bad day?", etc. This will get them thinking of another perspective without feeling you are advising them. If you really want to offer direct advice, you can ask first, "do you mind if I offer my opinion on your situation?"
posted by bearette at 8:42 PM on July 23, 2011

First off, ask if they want sympathy or solutions.

As a fellow whiner, I agree with most of what the other folks said about why I do it. But sometimes I Do know what would solve the problem, and I consider the solution to be far worse than the problem, so I don't do it. Then I try to resolve myself to living with the problem, except that's somewhat hard too and thus I erupt in a whine :P
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:34 PM on July 23, 2011

You might find something interesting in the book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". One of the main ideas is that guys want/will offer solutions as a response to complaints, and that women don't. I don't know about the validity of the generalisation, but he goes on to give a lot of advice to guys on how they should respond to the complaining female in their life without jumping in to problem solving.
posted by jacalata at 12:17 AM on July 24, 2011

My boyfriend and I have this sort of unspoken rule about fixing after bitching. He's not much of a venter, but he will from time to time. I'm much more of one, but I also like having my problems fixed.

So what we (again, usually him, since I whine more) end up doing is usually listen carefully, make all the appropriate "that sucks, uh huh" etc. noises, and after there's a pause to the venting/the venting is concluded (signified by an extended period of silence, conclusion of a narrative, or a lot of growling noises and strangling motions at the air), THEN we'll offer advice. It tends to be more well received after the stress-relieving vent is over.


Me: Work SUCKED today. Clients sending rush cases last minute, higher ups accepting the cases without checking with ME, and team leads not organized so I have to DEDUCE where the heck they stopped at ON TOP of finishing their crap!! *long rant about the details of said suckitude*
Him: Uh huh, what?! That's outrageous!! *listen listen, sympathetic noises* Wow, I'm sorry your day sucked so much. *waits until I'm done ranting* Y'know, why don't you TELL your team lead to write her stuff down so even if she forgets to tell you, at least you won't waste two hours trying to figure it out.
Me: Doesn't work! I've tried that. *further growling, vent about said person, in which he will 'mmhmm' and listen some more before offering constructive advice for that part* [OR] Yeah, I know, I need to do some polite fistshaking at work tomorrow. Sigh. I know what I need to do, but I just needed to vent before I explode in a shower of RAGEFACE. Thanks for listening.

I'm actually surprised most advice tends to fall into the 'just listen' part, and will take that to heart for my future conduct. (I try to remember to listen and not fix, and ask after they finish complaining if they want advice, but my brain automatically switches from 'bitch' to 'fix' so it takes some effort and I still slip sometimes.)
posted by Hakaisha at 11:22 PM on July 24, 2011

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but I cannot favorite Cateyes's comment enough.

I know some "fixer" type people. I guard myself from talking about my problems with them anymore, because instead of being empathetic, they automatically throw out superficial advice. So now, not only am I making myself vulnerable by opening up about something that troubles me, I'm now put on the defensive by someone who thinks I'm an idiot and hasn't even tried to solve me own problems. You can't be an expert in all subjects, and if people are bristling at your "problem solving skills" it's likely because you're being condescending by thinking that you have all the answers, when the problem is likely far more complex, or has more nuance than you understand.

To be clear, the fixers I've known have only one thing in common. They're not great problem-solvers, nor do they have some special insight, or are quick witted, super intelligent, or understand people in some special way. They just have a special strand of egotism that makes them think that their advice is always useful or desired in some way.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 8:42 AM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: They just have a special strand of egotism that makes them think that their advice is always useful or desired in some way

Is that supposed to be some kind of thinly veiled insult?

Thank you everyone for your comments and assistance. I will definitely try the active listening techniques, and the Six Levels Of Validation technique looks very interesting indeed. I will definitely try that.

I probably should add that it's rather unfortunate that both of the examples I used were related to women. I wasn't trying to make the point that women are complainers, it was just that these were the two situations that happened to pop into my head. I seem to attract male whiners (hate that word) as much as female ones.

I think in future I will warn people that I have a tendency to problem solve, and then use some of the techniques outlined above.
posted by Solomon at 10:50 AM on July 26, 2011

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