“I am so frustrated at work right now,” a woman vents to her husband. “My team just doesn’t pay attention to deadlines and it keeps impacting my work.”
“Why don’t you set up a shared calendar with your team to coordinate deadlines?” the husband suggests, as it seems like an easy and obvious fix to him. To his surprise, instead of his wife embracing the idea, she gets frustrated with his response.
I bet this dynamic is familiar to all of us. We’ve all been on the side of wanting to share, looking for someone else to be with us in our emotional state only to feel frustrated when we don’t receive the response we desire. And we’ve all been on the receiving end, listening to someone share their emotional state and wanting to volunteer a way to fix their distress.
Since we’re all familiar with both sides of this exchange, why does it so often go so poorly, leaving both parties feeling unheard and misunderstood?
From the Perspective of the Listener
Why We Try to Fix Things
We Are Uncomfortable With Discomfort
This is a core reason behind this drive – we don’t like to see people suffer. And so when we witness somebody’s distress, we want to alleviate it. Both for their sake, and for ours.
We Want to Help
Most people want to be helpful. This current pandemic with its “stay at home” mandate makes this clear. We don’t want to sit idle, we want to be able to DO something.
We Want to Be Needed
Many of us have a need to be needed and a fear of abandonment if we are needed. And one of the ways that this can manifest is by being the “fixer” for others.
The Problem With Trying to Fix Things
Not Everything Can Be Easily Fixed
Oftentimes, there isn’t a fix for what is causing distress. Or, at least not a feasible one or one that it is our control. In these cases, an attempt to fix becomes an endless source of frustration.
The Outside Perspective is Limited
Whenever advice comes from an outside source, it is operating from limited data and perspective. In the opening example, the husband may not know that a shared calendar already exists and that the coworkers never open the file. It’s easy for the fixer to offer up a solution to the wrong problem.
Sends the Message That the Person Isn’t Capable
One of the reason that I like the coaching process is that it operates from the belief that we know what we need to do, we sometimes need help uncovering and implementing that knowledge. When we try to fix other’s problems, we can be implying that they are not capable of solving them on their own.
What to Do Instead
Just be there. Acknowledge what they say and how they are feeling.
Ask if They Want Input
Before you offer up a solution, ask if they want input. If they don’t, bite your tongue, at least for now. When emotions are high, people are not in a space where they can hear and process ideas.
Separate Your Emotional Response From Theirs
Sometimes when we hear about somebody else’s situation, it brings up an emotional response of our own. This may be stronger or even in opposition to theirs. It’s important not to try to fix their situation from your impacted state.
How to Share For a Better Outcome
1 – Choose who you share with intentionally.
If I need to vent about the demands of teaching, I am going to find a more understanding ear in my mom, who was a teacher, than my husband, who hasn’t been in a classroom since he graduated. Be smart about who you choose to go to with certain things. Also, be mindful about what else they’re dealing with and your timing of unloading on them.
2 – Clarify what you’re looking for.
Do you want advice or do you just want to vent? You’re more likely to get out of it what you want if you begin by stating what you’re looking for.
3 – Be aware if you’re complaining endlessly about the same things.
Empathy has its limits. If you’re always discussing the same unchangeable situation or refusing to take reasonable action, people will tire of hearing your story.
4 – Be mindful of what emotions this may trigger in the other person.
Try not to take their response personally; they may be responding from their past.
5 – Try to be patient with the drive to fix.
Even though is can feel dismissive and like they’re not really listening to you, remember that they want to make things better for you because they care about you.
6 – Respond to suggestions with grace and boundaries.
“Thank you for your suggestion” and “That’s not going to work for me.” Repeat as needed.