A common (stereotyped) complaint between genders is that one person (often the woman) wants to talk about a problem and instead of listening, the receiver (often the man) tries to “fix” the problem by giving unasked for advice. This attempt at fixing is often received as condescension – with the person feeling like the fixer doesn’t believe they are capable of solving the problem on their own. On a deeper level, the person can feel like they are UNSEEN. The person feels like they stop being a human experiencing a problem and becomes “A-Problem-To-Be-Solved.”
Most often, when we discuss a problem, we are not asking for a solution. What we want is to be heard, to express the nuances of the issue, and to explore feelings. Sometimes, we are searching for a solution, but what we are searching for is to find it in the discourse, not be given an answer. We’ve all had the experience of talking out a problem and suddenly coming to the solution ourselves just by verbalizing. Doing so often gives us perspective as we hear our internal dialogue in a new way, outside of our own heads. A good therapist will often merely have to say: “Did you hear what you just said?” for someone to find the glitch in their thinking and a way out.
Mistakes in communication, though, are two-way. It isn’t one person’s fault that one wants to merely be heard while the other wants to fix.
The person who wants to “fix” is often coming from a desire to be helpful. They want to make things better and it has nothing to do with condescension. They don’t think someone CAN’T figure it out, just that they are asking for help by talking about the problem. Most of us love being of service, and when someone comes to us for help, we often jump at the chance, sometimes too quickly. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “I helped her out of jam, I guess, but I used a little too much force.”
The solution to this is incredibly simple and both parties benefit from it tremendously. If you find yourself wanting to vent, make that clear: “Hey, can I just vent for a minute? I don’t need solutions, I just want to talk about this.” When we let people know, they can alter their behavior to suit, and still get to be helpful. If they can’t, then there is a deeper conversation to have, but for the most part, this simple fix really can change the dynamic with friends and partners. And, if you are often the one listening, ask the question: “OK, do you want suggestions, or do you just want to vent? I’m here for you either way.” There is tremendous love and respect in letting someone know we are willing to just spend time and give your full attention to listen.
Do you find people often try to solve problems for you or do you find yourself often giving unsolicited advice? Let me know in the comments.
Next week we’ll discuss how not jumping straight to problem solving with your own self can really benefit your psyche.