Proven techniques for reponding to the Help Rejecting Complainer?
February 4, 2013 9:07 PM   Subscribe

We all have one in our life. They come to us, over and over again, with a particular problem or quandary. Yet they don't seem to want to address the problem. Trying to be helpful, we offer suggestions or ideas, each of which is shot down. The process repeats itself again and again, you feeling more frustrated each time. Surely there must be a better way.
posted by mintchip to Human Relations (22 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Listen, commiserate, don't offer solutions.
posted by primethyme at 9:09 PM on February 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh goodness yes, just nod and agree and then let it go. Otherwise you'll drive youself insane while they remain oblivious. They don't really want your advice, they just want to complain.
posted by Youremyworld at 9:12 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personally I listen attentively for 2-3 minutes and say "well, good luck with that" or "wow, that's a tough one". Then I move on to a new topic. If they cycle back to the same complaint, I give them another minute and then I have somewhere else to be.
posted by 99percentfake at 9:12 PM on February 4, 2013 [11 favorites]

Ask yourself: what would Rosie Perez's character in White Men Can't Jump do?
If I'm thirsty, I don't want a glass of water, I want you to sympathise. I want you to say, 'Gloria, I too know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth'. I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:19 PM on February 4, 2013 [25 favorites]

The second time I hear "yes, but..." I try to pull back. Depending on the person, I either just stop helping and say "Boy, that sounds tough". Or, for more mature people, if I think it would work, I will say something like "Do you want help or do you just want me to listen?"
posted by metahawk at 9:22 PM on February 4, 2013

I'd avoid "good luck with that" if you want to keep them in your life - I can see the temptation to say that since you're sick of hearing about their problems, but it implies that you don't care.

I prefer to open with something empathetic like "I'm sorry to hear that's still a problem for you/still bothering you" and then if they try to push me to say more or keep going on about the problem as if they're looking for a solution (despite the fact that we've talked about my ideas for solutions a number of times already), I use a phrase like "yes. well - you know my feelings on that." If they continue to push I just keep doing variations on "you know my feelings", like "we've discussed that already and I told you how I felt." or "I still feel the same way as I did last time we talked about this."

I say it in a caring but firm way and eventually we move on. I find they don't seem to want to talk about the solutions/ideas I've proposed - they just want to get it off their chest, and for me to recognize how much it's bothering them.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:25 PM on February 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

I understand how you can feel that way, mintchip. It IS really difficult to empathize with friends without trying to solve their problems for them. It's hard to see someone you care about struggle with tough times and not be able to do anything about it. I get frustrated in those situations too.

See what I did there?
posted by dchrssyr at 9:43 PM on February 4, 2013 [31 favorites]

"I love you, but it hurts me to see you going over the same problems over and over and not be willing to listen to advice or help. I can offer you a shoulder and an ear, but not always, so please know that if I say I can't right now, it's not because I don't care about you, but because it hurts me to see you encounter the same problems and not be willing to take the initiative to stop the cycle."

And then you stick to it.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:45 PM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Before you offer any advice or try to help, first ask yourself "Is this going to be a truly novel idea to this person?" Let's say that Bob is talking about a rash on his arm. Suggesting that he see a doctor is not helpful, and is only insulting by insinuating he's too stupid to have thought of that on his own. Something along the lines of "Yeah, my mom had a rash that looked like that once, and she used Some Obscure Cream which cleared it right up" might be more appreciated.

Also, what makes you so sure that this person is "coming to you with a particular problem?" Could be that the person is simply telling you what's going on in their life, sort of a "this is what I've been dealing with, these are the issues currently important to me" with no expectation that you're going to help in any way.
posted by storminator7 at 9:52 PM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

My father was a bit like your HRC, and it took me years to understand that one of the main ways he learned was by watching others demonstrate. A theoretical argument, however well presented, meant little to him. A diagram, well drawn, didn't really get his consideration, or stimulate his reasoning. If he was bringing up a problem, it was because he still didn't understand it, and if he was bringing it up to you, again, after any initial mention, it meant he was asking for a working demonstration of your ideas, and nothing less was going to suffice.

As an example, he took great pride in doing all his own home repair and auto maintenance, and growing up, I actually learned a lot from him, and still have and use dozens of his hand tools. But what he knew, he mostly invented himself, or learned by watching over the shoulders of trades people and subject specialists he recruited as friends. Some years ago, he got hold of a couple of commercial air conditioning compressor units, which required 20A 208V single phase circuits, that he wanted to use to beef up his air conditioning system. Since his breaker box was nearly full, and wouldn't accept 20A 208V single phase breakers, he decided he would "externally fuse" the units, at least long enough to get them working at his house.

Somewhere in life, he'd observed that screw-in style fuse threads "fit" ordinary light bulb sockets. But I didn't know that, and I never would have realized that accidental design fact, had my dad not come back to me, several times in a 2 week period, for advice about "curing" the problems he was having with blowing fuses on his new air conditioning units. As his problem persisted through several frustrating long distance calls, I eventually realized that I was being asked to stop theorizing about possible sources of intermittent faults in his air conditioners, and Come Demonstrate My Premises.

I went down the following weekend loaded with various electrical testing meters and tools, and Saturday afternoon, I suggested he Show Me Everything. And he did. He showed me the 12 inch by 24 inch by 3/4 inch piece of plywood he'd bolted up on the wall just below his breaker box, and the 2 pieces of 12 gauge Romex wiring he'd connected neatly through his main breaker box, to the top (line) side of his main breaker, and the 2 $1.89 60 watt maximum white ceramic light sockets he'd screwed to the plywood, and fitted out with 20A 208V slow-blo fuses, and then wired out to his new compressors with more 12 gauge Romex.

I did my best to keep a straight face as I said "Dad, these are the fuses that keep blowing?"

And he replied, "Pretty often. They hold maybe 30 minutes, or even an hour, and then they blow."

I said "Well, maybe there's something wrong with these sockets. Let's see." And we took 'em off the plywood and saw together that, on the back, they still had the "60 Watt Maximum Bulb Wattage" sticker.

And then I said "Well Dad, I've never seen light bulb sockets recruited for use as fuse holders, and I'm surprised the threads and sizes are even mechanically common. But it sure doesn't look, to my eyeballs, that there is enough metal in the center lead of the sockets to conduct 20 amps without getting pretty hot. Maybe that's what's happening, and your fuses keep melting because these sockets just get hotter than the fuse melt links can stand. Let's go get some blade type fuses and holders, and put them in, instead, and see if that helps."

So we did, for 10x the cost of the light sockets, which my Dad, in doubt about my latest "theory" observed as I bought all the new bits, before we could hook it all up. But once we did, the compressors ran, without further problems.

As I was leaving, my Dad said "Thanks for coming down. There's nothing like a demonstration of an actual problem to get it fixed."

posted by paulsc at 10:17 PM on February 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

An excerpt from Irvin Yalom's textbook on group psychotherapy:
... Consumed with need, the HRC [Help Rejecting Complainer] turns for help to a figure he or she anticipates will be unwilling or unable to help. The anticipation of refusal so colors the style of requesting help the the prophecy is fulfilled, and further evidence is accumulated for the belief in the malfeaseance of the potential caregiver. A vicious circle results, one that has been spinning for much of the client's life.

A severe HRC is an exceedingly difficult clinical challenge... Surely it is a blunder for the therapist to confuse the help requested for the help required. The HRC solicits advice not for its potential value but in order to spurn it. Ultimately, the therapist's advice, guidance, and treatment will be rejected or, if used, will prove ineffective or, if effective, will be kept secret. It is als a blunder for the therapist to express any frustration or resentment. Retaliation merely completes the vicious circle: the clients' anticipation of ill treatment and abandonment is once again realized: They feel justified in their hostile mistrust and are able to affirm once again that no one can ever really understand them.

What course, then, is available to the therapist? One clinician suggests, perhaps in desperation, that the therapist interrupt the vicious circle by indicating that he or she "not only understands but shares the patient's feelings of hopelessness about the situation," thus refusing to perpetuate his or her part in a futile relationship. [Two other therapists] warn us against investing in a sympathetic, nurturing relationship with the client. They suggest that therapists sidestep any expression of optimism, encouragement, or advice and adopt instead a pose of irony in which they agree with the content of the client's pessimism while maintaining a detached affect.... (5th Ed., pp. 404-405)
So, basically what Rosie Perez has to say, except that in addition to 1) resisting the urge to offer advice; and 2) sympathizing with the victim's plight; I would also include 3) agreeing with their feelings of hopelessness, and/or agreeing that their situation is actually hopeless (at least from a certain point of view).
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 10:39 PM on February 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm strong at rhetoric and I'm the pushy/bossy type, so I've noticed that I preemptively ward off the HRC type due to my reputation. Instead of passively offering suggestions when people complain to me, I often end up seizing matters into my own hands by coming up with some sort of hands-on plan that pushes people out of their comfort zone. For instance, just the other day when my friend was complaining about how she could never find any boys interested in her, I told her that we'd set up a time to drag her on a walk around town so I could act as her wingman in demanding numbers for any boys she found even remotely cute.

I mean, generally in most cases, they end up withdrawing so it never ends up being a huge time commitment to get more hands-on involved for me, but even when they do withdraw, I notice I often have reinforced the message that it wasn't hopeless and if they were willing to go out of their comfort bubble, they could do something about it so they never complain to me about it again (and if they do, I can bring up "well, why didn't you do that thing I offered to do with you last time?) And if they DO end up taking me up on my offers, hey, I get to help out a friend while having an excuse to go outside of my own comfort zone too.

Plus after a while, you notice that the only friends coming to you with problems are the ones that actively do want to solve them rather than the ones who just want to complain. Way more fun.

Although yeah, it's not for everyone.
posted by Conspire at 10:49 PM on February 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

Also, paulsc's "Show Me Everything" makes me wish Ask Mefi relationship questions came with a teleportation button next to the comment box.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 10:51 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Wow, that is a problem [tough situation, bummer, etc.] I feel for you. What's your next move?"

Repeat as necessary.
posted by rpfields at 12:26 AM on February 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

I asked a question about a related topic a while back and got some really good advice. The reflective listening thing that synchronia mentioned is especially helpful.

Also helpful is asking the question "do you want help, or do you want to vent?". Once you know the answer to that question, you can decide whether you're going to spend your time getting annoyed, or not.

I realised a while ago that being a Problem Solver and being a Venter are both equally valid modes of being. People have to find what works for them. The problem is that a Problem Solver is oil and a Venter is water - they just don't mix well. Both types in a conversation often find themselves frustrated. My advice is that if you find yourself in a conversation with a person of the other type to you, just end the conversation. You'll be doing both of you a favour.

A couple of stories about my experiences:

Not long after I wrote that Ask, I had to have a conversation with a friend about her style of dealing (she's a Venter, I'm a Problem Solver). She releases negative vibes by talking about her problem (and in my case, passing them on to me). I dissolve them by fixing the problem. She would call me up and rant about her toxic family and the friend who kept getting her in trouble with the police and that person at her workplace who did that really annoying thing, and so on. Eventually, I explained the situation to her - she was dragging me down with the constant whining and it was getting to be too much. I explained the "do you want to vent or do you want advice thing" to her, and of course she wanted to vent. So I explained that that wasn't an option any more and that she could either deal with me giving unsolicited advice or she could not vent to me. Long story short, she doesn't vent to me any more. She now has another friend who handles situations quite like she does. She mentioned once that it was actually better to talk to her other friend, because her other friend sympathised with her in a much more pleasurable way. I can totally see that. We're still friends, we just don't touch on things that we know are going to set one another off. We've realised that we can't be all things to one another, and that it's not healthy to try.

My friend isn't a bad person for wanting to Vent. It's just how she's wired. Both of us are much happier now I'm not trying to solve her problems.

Another friend used to get upset with me when I used to problem solve for her, which led to several niggling arguments over offhand comments. She explicitly stated that she didn't want any advice from me, ever. Looking back, I can see how annoying it must have been for her to have me problem solve, or as she saw it, criticise ("unasked for advice is criticism"). I'll be honest, I was kind of affronted at first. I knew a way for her to fix things, it was simple enough, so why wouldn't she want to do it? It just sounded sensible. She didn't see it like that, though. It's the oil:water thing again. The next time she started moaning, I tried the reflective listening techniques. She complained that I sounded like a therapist. Which, I guess I did, in a way. Venting is no longer a fun, positive thing for her to do to me, because I don't respond in the appropriate fashion, so she doesn't do it any more. We get along much better now and I think we're both aware of our annoying behaviours.

I've used the reflective listening techniques in other situations to good effect too, when someone just needed to decompress after a bad day. I've not had much luck with people whose personality seems to be that of Venter, rather than it just being a passing phase or temporary mood.

I've also had the experience that a Venter might not know how much they're Venting. I once was in the situation, one hot summer, of having a relative ask me seven times in one day "Isn't it hot?". In the end, I just snapped and shouted "yes, it's hot!" at them. Appalling behaviour on my part. The thing is, each time the Venter vented, they sort of "forgot" that they'd vented - like a pan boiling on a stove, if you lift the lid, it cools down. Then it heats up again, and so on. I hadn't forgotten that they'd Vented, and had tried to Problem Solve, only to be shot down. Our experiences of the shared situation were quite different.

Ultimately, you have to make a decision about how much time and effort you're going to put into this. It's OK for other people to Vent, just like it's OK for you to Problem Solve, as long as both parties agree on what both the process and outcome will be. If you don't want to spend time listening to complainers, then don't. Be sure that if you do listen to a Venter, though, you're probably going to not have a good experience, unless you can dramatically alter your conversational skills and at least partially, your personality type too.
posted by Solomon at 1:37 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are Help Rejecting Complainers, and on the other side of the coin there are Unwanted Advice Givers. Both can be frustrating at their extremes. Having an HRC in your life doesn't automatically make you a UAG, or vice versa. However, if you find yourself repeatedly bumping into either type, it's worth examining whether you're showing behaviors of the other.

HRCs with a particular repeated complaint often feel powerless to change that problem, and venting is one thing that helps them. If you respond by suggesting a plan of action, the venter is going to feel like you just don't get it, or worse, like you just aren't listening. It usually is much harder to change a problem you're in the middle of than to stand on the sidelines and shout suggestions. On the other hand, getting stuck in the middle of something often requires an outside perspective.

If you've got a friend who keeps coming to you to vent about a specific thing that they never ever change, listen and empathize. But after the third (or so) vent on the same subject, bring it up: "Hey, you've seemed really bothered by this lately, and I hate to see you so frustrated. It might be time for you to take action." If the problem goes unsolved and the venter continues to vent, it's okay to be more direct: "You've been complaining about this a lot, and I know it's a crappy situation to be in. But this is a situation you can change, and it concerns me that you're not doing anything about it." You're not offering specific advice; you're pointing out the nature and frequency of their complaints, and reminding them that they have power to change things - both things that venters can easily lose sight of. And, even though you're effectively saying "shit or get off the pot," you're also showing that you've been listening, and you understand that this is a genuine source of frustration for them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:55 AM on February 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Heh, oh man.

I am a private and unemotional unwanted advice giver and a compulsive rigid problem-solver, married to a person who wants to share and be heard. This leads to situations where I think he is the problem, but really *I am the problem*.


* Listen when you can. Nod, empathize, offer food, repeat.

* Refer elsewhere when you can't (as in: set a boundary with how much time you will devote to someone venting).

* Affect an expression of interest.

* Remember that you care about them and all people are different.

It's hard for me.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:17 AM on February 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sounds like the flip side of This Question. Should we get you two in a room and mediate?

I get a bit frustrated sometimes and one of my friends calls me the Goddess of the Reality Check.

I personally like to tell the truth. "You've mind-fucked this to death. Either he calls or he doesn't. Let's get cocktails and talk about movies."

"What do you WISH would happen?" (wait for answer) "Yeah, that would be nice. Let's get cocktails and talk about movies."

For some reason, now that my friends know that I'm not dicking around, I get more questions than ever!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:48 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

We don't all have one in our lives. Good friends aren't a constant drain on our mental resources, and people like this always are. I find I just don't have the patience for them, and that the friends I cultivate and keep track of (as you get older, it requires more active maintenance) are never going to include people like this. You have to decide for yourself whether there's enough benefit to be worth the hair-pulling...
posted by acm at 6:43 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a friend like this. Actually my mom is like this too.

I've stopped trying to give advice - well, I've tried to stop. I try to stick with "Wow, I know it's stressful. I hope it gets better." Or "That's a big challenge, but I know you can handle it!" Or "Yeah, that's a problem. What do you think you'll do about it?" Or, "I'm sorry you're dealing with that. Let me know if I can do something to help!"
posted by bunderful at 8:24 AM on February 5, 2013

I had a close friend who saw me as a Help Rejecting Complainer. She spent over a decade trying to fix me when I just wanted to vent. Since I dumped her I've found that not having someone around who constantly tells me how wrongly I go about everything (for my own good) is quite refreshing and I do a lot less venting in general.

My friend once told me, at a time when I was at my brokest and was physically incapable of working more than part-time, that maybe I should hire a financial advisor. She said I was borrowing trouble when I said I was ill (turned out - I was ill!). Now, I'm sure you're giving excellent, appropriate advice. But you might want to think about what you're saying vs what this person needs and can reasonably do.
posted by camyram at 9:30 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a super goddamned whiner, and you have my permission to say that you can't take this any more and they need to vent to someone else. It's okay to not have to listen to it every time. Hell, even I hit my limit at times and say that I don't know what to say to that any more.

If it helps any, this is kind of the mental cycle of the venters/whiners:

(a) I have Problem. I don't like it.
(b) I know that the solutions to this are either A or B.
(c) However, I don't want to do A or B. A and B seem to me to be even worse than the actual problem.
(d) I start whining/venting to someone, shooting for either (a) sympathy, or (b) maybe they'll have thought of an option C that is way better than A or B. I know better than to ask for an option C outright, but problem solvers tend to tell you these things anyway.
(e) However, there's never a damn option C. Deep down I know that, I just hope that a miracle occurs or something. Other person inevitably says, "Why don't you do A or B and shut up about it?"
(f) I say why I don't want to do A or B, other person gets ticked off at me.
(g) I resolve that I will just put the hell up with Problem, it's still better than doing A or B. I resolve to shut up and accept Problem.
(h) However, Problem is still a Problem, and it doesn't go away/improve and sometimes gets worse, and I am still stuck in the same "a or b" situation, and I'm still miserable, and...we're back at A again.

Odds are, the whiners know what you're going to suggest anyway--they just don't like it, even if it would solve the problem. I usually think A or B would just make it worse or cause a worse problem than the original. So that's why they reject it when you try to help--you're just saying the same thing as everyone else and not coming up with a miraculous option C instead.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:56 PM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

« Older Friendships after relationships   |   Is it really smart to move an old house rather... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.