Yesterday my niece called to vent. She often calls me to tell me something that has happened that bothers her or just to chat. We have set clear expectations about what she wants from me when it is not simply to chat.
Is she calling to vent – she wants me to just listen, so she can let off steam, so she can let it go.
Is she calling for a cheerleader – she wants me to validate her feelings.
Is she calling for advice – she wants me to tell her what I think about the situation.
Is she calling for devil’s advocacy – she wants me to take the opposite position of her, or the perspective of another person, so we can discuss why the other perspective does not make sense to her, but could, and hopefully gain some understanding.
Is she calling for direction – she wants me to just tell her what I would do in the situation.
All of my friends and family know this is the drill. If you call me with a problem, we will start with the question, “what do you want from me?” Most of the time we don’t even have to ask the question anymore, they will immediately start with, “I calling to/for….”
I learned long ago how priceless this initial categorization could be. Nothing is more frustrating than to talk to someone who is not giving you what you want. Getting advice when you just need to vent, or know your feelings are not crazy, wrecks the entire communication.
This is particularly a huge miscommunication problem between men and women. Traditionally, though there are exceptions, men are not attuned to the venting as a process. A woman tells a man a problem and he immediately starts telling her the solution.
Women usually need to get through the venting stage before they are ready for the solution stage, and they may not need anyone else to tell them the solution. If a woman is in the venting stage, she will find a jump to the solutions stage upsetting, frustrating, and maybe even offensive.
Men, on the other hand, do not understand why a woman keeps complaining instead of accepting the solution, often a very simple solution (like,"Just don't talk to her anymore."). Men then think the woman simply wants to be unhappy or stay in a bad situation.
This is not the case. Usually a woman just wants to be heard. Maybe she wants her feelings to be validated. Denying a woman this opportunity actually inhibits her ability to move on to the solutions stage.
I am a problem solver. My venting stage is unusually short - often lightening fast, if it exists at all. If I am talking to someone about the details of a problem, I am either using it as an example for a point or creating context to explain the solution I have come to. However, even I have found that someone jumping in before I have completed my short venting stage to offer a solution gets me stuck in the venting stage. I suddenly feel I have to further explain my feelings and perspective because the other person has invalidated my experience.
I agree some people do just want to complain over and over but have no desire to solve the problem. However, most people, I have found, even some men, really need the venting time. Letting people just talk it out let’s them move on, whether to solve the problem or just let it go. Whereas, not feeling heard or validated often causes people to get stuck in the stage way longer than necessary.
While I do not ask everyone “what do you want from me?” (people who do not know me would not understand my directness), I have learned to simply listen in the beginning and see what happens.
Often when people start sharing their story, I assume they want me to help them solve it (I am a general problem solver as well as an attorney after all), but after a while they then move on to other subjects without even a pause for my response. Wow! Nothing for me to solve!
Realizing everyone is not looking for advice or solutions has actually taken a lot of stress and projects off my plate. And they got what they wanted too – to be heard.