December 25, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

I am tired of being the owl for my friends and family. How do I get them to talk to *each other* instead of *me*?

So for many years now I end up being the owl between my friends: if my friends have some issue with another mutual friend, they both tell me about it - often with a wish that the other person would know. This has happened with ex-partners, current partners, friends warring with each other, friends who aren't warring with each other but think the other person hates them...all sorts of configurations.

My family is especially prone to this. If my parents have a beef with one of us sisters (there's two), they tell the *other* sister and then the relevant party doesn't hear of it till a long time later. Lately the parents are gossiping about each other to me.

One time this blow-up got to absurd proportions when some random distant auntie took offense to a photo I posted on Facebook...but instead of telling me, they told my parents (who hadn't seen the photo and got told an exaggerated version of what the photo actually is), who then bugged my sister, who then bugged me blaming *me* for pushing the photo onto the parents and causing everyone a headache. It took a lot of hunting and another distant relative to tell me the whole convoluted chain of events - which could have been resolved if someone had talked to *me* the first time.

Currently I am dealing with owling between two friends who are really into each other, *know* that the other party is interested...yet for some reason have not explicitly done anything about it. Instead they're way more explicit to *me* about their intentions, as though it's *me* they're trying to pick up. I've not-so-subtly hinted to each other that hey, Other Party IS keen, you have to be as explicit to them as you have to me - and they've both been like "oh noes they will think I am pressuring them etc etc". When really they are not feeling pressured, they are actually responding to each other's qualms and interests...without actually talking to *each other*.

It gets especially worse when there's an expectation to take sides. Oftentimes I hear multiple perspectives of a situation and *everyone* thinks they're 100% in the right and the other person must obviously be wrong. It's rare that there is someone who did clearly fuck up - and even then I see the fucker-upper try to make amends, but they're directing it more towards me than to the other person.

I'm honoured that they trust me enough to be honest with me about it, but I feel like a lot of anxiety would be relieved if they talked to the relevant person about it rather than me.

Is there any good way to go "I AM NOT AN OWL!" without alienating either party? I have been that direct with them before but they don't seem to listen. I don't want to go "you cannot talk to me EVAR" either, but a lot of it gets repetitive and frankly boring. (Sometimes they whine that nothing has changed ages later, and I'm like "well if you two talked to each other there would have been hope of something working out...") I'm at the verge of getting snarky with people, but honestly I'd rather they get mad at me if it means I can stop owling.
posted by divabat to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing is to train yourself to listen to people complaining without feeling any sense of obligation beyond being a good listener. You've got to break the habit of thinking about how you could help in these interpersonal squabbles - and that's hard; I struggle with the impulse myself.

The second thing is to never talk about anyone to anyone else, ever. Stop gossiping completely. If someone brings up an exchange they had with someone else, stick to "and how did that make you feel?"-type focused responses. Don't bring up other people first if you can possibly help it. (This will be even harder, and you'll have to figure out where the lines actually are - obviously, "Jack's giving me a ride to the airport tomorrow" is different from "Jack is pissed at Martha because she won't let him use the car" but one of those is likely to cause trouble and the other isn't.)

And the third thing is to practice disengaging from the conversation when people, like your lovesick friends, start up again about the thing/person they just won't stop bitching about but can't be bothered to take any action on. Breaking other people's bad habits around you is also not easy, and can definitely get to the point where you're hanging up the phone/walking away when they won't respect your boundaries, but this is very much about boundary-setting, and it's important.

You can't fix fucked-up family dynamics, and it'll never be perfect, but you can cut yourself out of the loop with a fair bit of effort and mindfulness. Good luck!
posted by restless_nomad at 11:00 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Frst, warn your owler that you don't want to get involved in a particular topic. Then you just don't respond to that topic. Ignore it entirely when it comes up. Physically turn away from the conversation if you have to, and then refuse to acknowledge that they were talking about it. If he or she gets really frustrated at your refusal, remind him or her that you're not getting involved in that topic, then bring up a new one.

"I am not having this conversation."
posted by Etrigan at 11:04 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: restless_nomad: most times I don't really do anything about it unless directly asked - but I'm starting to tire of listening, which makes me feel like a bad friend, but it's doing my head in!
posted by divabat at 11:07 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Absolutely the best things to do:

- tell people you'd rather not talk about the other person
- don't talk about the other person/people even though it's tempting to; change the subject or leave the room if you have to
- don't ever pass on messages
- don't pick up on hints or try to untangle stories. Let someone who has an issue with you talk to you, and if they don't, ignore what's been said.

This keeps happening because you keep participating. Once you stop, and make it clear you don't want to gossip any more, this will stop. You'll need to tell them all more than once, but eventually it will stop.

On preview: You're not being a bad friend when you stop listening. You're being a better friend because you're not talking about other people. They can trust that you won't talk about them either.
posted by Amy NM at 11:17 AM on December 25, 2012

Remove yourself from the drama by (at most) listening but not repeating. Resist the feeling that you are required to be the conduit for communication and to fix things.

Then, it becomes a choice whether you are or are not. Start by not doing it at all and then, if you like, later sometimetimes you can decide if you would like to be the embassador in some circumstances.

Basically, recognize that you and your needs are as important as those of your friends, and that you should be respectful of your own needs.
posted by zippy at 11:25 AM on December 25, 2012

A man goes to a doctor and says "Doctor, it hurts when I do this" and moves his arm painfully. The doctor says "Stop doing that."

I think the answer to this one is pretty simple. Just stop doing it. Say "I'm sorry, but I can't do that." Repeat as needed. Breathe easier as drama leaves your life.
posted by empath at 11:27 AM on December 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

The only way that this can stop is if you stop. Start with
"I'm honoured that [you] trust me enough to be honest with me about it, but I feel like a lot of anxiety would be relieved if [you] talked to the relevant person about it rather than me."

and follow with:

"I'm starting to tire of listening, which makes me feel like a bad friend, but it's doing my head in!"
Repeat as necessary. Although if you've been direct about this and nothing has changed, you will likely find that snark may not be enough. Some people just are not willing to communicate directly and you can't force them to, nor can you force them to like it if you change the rules.

The best you can do is to explain why you are removing yourself from the equation and then proceed to unequivocally do so.
posted by sm1tten at 11:36 AM on December 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

It will take months and sometimes years to change the dynamics of certain relationships, but I think it is really worth the effort. Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 12:13 PM on December 25, 2012

Triangulation is discussed in The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. Unfortunately I can't recall what techniques she suggests for getting out of those triangles, but if you can get your hands on a copy it might be useful.
posted by bunderful at 7:12 PM on December 25, 2012

My responses tend to be:

"Pfff, I don't get in the middle of such things, sorry." And then I try to change the subject.

Or, "I have no opinion on this. Why don't you just ask / tell John Smith instead of telling me?"

Or, "If you really think she's cute, ask her out! Won't do any good pining about your crush here."

Or, any variation of shrug, "mm", "okay", combination of blank stares, "did he? I didn't notice", and "okay, I have to go do this thing now."

If two parties are at each other's throats and I'm the chosen ferryman, then I resort to talking to each separately. To Jane, I say, "He does seem to be be short with you, but perhaps you could try to listen to him more. And that's -all- the opinion I have on the matter." To John, I say, "She tends to skim over the details when she's angry, so perhaps you could maintain a calm outlook and be patient. That's all I'll say, take it as you will" Once or twice with this and I have become, amongst certain people who've cared to notice, a decent but distant sounding board.

I think it's one of the levels on the way to becoming a Good Listener, but I couldn't say for sure. I mainly just don't care, but I think even that can take practice.
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:54 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Heh, btw, this embodies that idea perfectly. I'm being serious. Keep your chin up and your (cautiously aware) blinders on.
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:59 AM on December 26, 2012

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