What is the first thing we all tend to do when a friend or family member dares to complain about some problems?
SLAM! We offer an expert, rational solution, and pat ourselves on our backs for being in the position of not-emotionally-involved. No stakes for personal bias grants us the privilege of good old objectivity.
“Wow, thanks, I’ll try that right away!”
While it occasionally works out this way, usually that conversation will head in another direction. Seething and condensation might be involved.
Because that slam was a slap. You expertly jerked your knee and slapped a band-aid on an annoying, smelly, gushy leak.
And what’s the problem with that?
Well, even if the person takes your expert advice in good faith and tries his or her best to follow the program… After a while, that band-aid of a solution tends to peel off… But why?
Because we don’t really go through with solutions unless we believe we were the ones to think about it? I mean, that’s what Dale Carnegie taught us, isn’t it?
I have a different theory, Mr President. And it is inspired by, of all things, the design process.
The simple reason why that band-aid keeps falling off is that you most likely misdiagnosed the problem.
Let’s change the pose now. Sometimes you give advice, and sometimes someone else gives it to you.
How does it make you feel?
The reason someone offering you a solution stings you and makes you feel stupid (and usually the solution offered sounds stupidly obvious, like, duh?) and makes you respond like an ingrate brat is… They got the problem wrong. And more importantly, it confuses you as you started speaking with a very different course of behaviour in mind.
Now, these interactions tend to get so heated that both parties exit it feeling like an ass. So, we keep missing the reason why it all feels so wrong and irritating.
Problem Stack Problem
Yes, there is a problem in offering a solution to someone that is complaining. A big, glaring, multi-faceted problem. The problem is that the solution is not solving the problem, but stacking another problem on top of the problem you originally had.
It’s like an extra chore: you need to take out the trash, but also knocked the water pipes broken, and now, smudgy smelly water laced with long old greasy hair is now dripping under your sink cupboard. Let that sink in.
Instead of solving that problem, you’re now stuck solving the problem of a relationship in jeopardy because you have a problem with the medicine you were prescribed. And the biggest issue here might not be the medicine brr se (we might occasionally get the right medicine) – but the horror lies in Dr Fix-it having seen it fit to skip the most crucial step in the process: the Diagnosis.
I am writing all this in the spirit of eureka.
I believe my realization, discovery will help you, me, and the whole world (yeah right) avoid making problems worse for yourself, your friends, and your family – on either side, the complainer or the one being complained to.
You’ve likely seen the video of a man and a woman sitting in the living room, the woman has a nail in her head and is complaining about the pain. The man then suggests she should remove the nail (she’d die if she did that, tho, no?), and she’s like no and keeps complaining about the headache.
Problems are complicated by design.
So, if you happen to be in the role of the listener ever again, try THIS instead of prescribing advice: help the person unpack and understand their experience. Rephrase their experience seventeen times if you must – but DO NOT PRESCRIBE A SOLUTION. It’s the wrong thing to do!
Likewise, to make sure you get the help you are looking for – if you ever happen to need to complain to someone, before you begin, you may alert them: can you help me understand my experience? (or problem)
In that light, by offering a solution instead of vetting the problem, you’re basically pulling a strawman. High chance.
I need to vent.
It seems to me that we were led to believe we need to “vent” or love to complain just for the sake of it. I don’t believe that anymore.
I believe we talk (or write) to reflect. It is a critical human-social function. We try to make sense of our experience – and often someone else’s perspective will paint a more comprehensive image of the experience – more importantly, it can highlight a possible problem within that experience with a better degree of clarity.
In many abstract cases, when the experience makes sense and the problem is thoroughly identified, a solution will never have to be prescribed by someone else and any advice won’t have to be spelt out.
Any time you ask, “what should I do” – might indicate that you don’t really understand your problem. It’s a sign of confusion. And there’s a good chance that someone else wouldn’t know what to do either – as, naturally, they can’t know more about your problem than you do – not until you’ve thoroughly unpacked it between the two of you, anwyay.
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