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Listen To Your Partner’s Problem, Or Solve It? Couples, Conflict and Emotional Support

(4 minute read)

It’s a cliché and an overly broad stereotype that when men and women talk, women want to vent about their problems, and men want to solve those problems. (See this video for an over-the-top and entertaining example. ) When men leap into problem-solving mode, women get upset and explain that they just want to be listened to. Men then get frustrated that women would rather complain than do anything about their issues, feel rejected, and lose interest in listening.

So who’s right? Should men stop trying to solve everything and just listen? Or should women stop venting and fix things?

If you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that the answer is “Yes”. Yes, men are right, and yes, women are also right. Here’s why.

When we jump too quickly into problem-solving mode, several bad things happen. First, we may not fully understand the problem, so the solutions we offer may not be workable. Second, as a species, we generally don’t like being told what to do. Solutions that are given to us by other people usually don’t feel quite right. Even if the general idea is reasonable, the way that we would implement that idea is different from the way our advisor is telling us to implement it. Being told to do something often raises our defenses, so we look for reasons to reject the idea, rather than looking for what is useful and tweaking it to make it suit us. Lastly, and most importantly, being given a solution takes away our sense of control and effectiveness. It’s like becoming a child again and being told what to do and how to do it. When we’re implementing someone else’s idea, we usually have little emotional investment in its success. But if WE came up with the idea, we’ll put lots of time and thought into making it work.

Does this mean we should just shut up and listen empathically to our partner forever? No, because just as telling another person what to do takes away their control and effectiveness, listening empathically without moving toward a solution can also take away control and effectiveness and lead to a sense of victimhood.

Here’s an illustration of that from my own life: At the age of 33 I’d somehow landed a dream job, one which provided meaning, influence, money and the opportunity to talk to some of the most interesting people in the world. I was invited by a client to join him white-water rafting through the Grand Canyon for a week. When I came back to the office, I found I’d been docked three days pay by my boss for exceeding my annual vacation allowance, even though I came back with a new contract in hand from my client. I felt very unfairly treated, and everyone agreed with me. The more I talked about the issue, the more empathy I got, and the more empathy I got, the more angry I became, even to the point that I was ready to quit this terrific job. Until one day when I poured out my tale of sorrow and woe to a grizzled veteran of many corporate wars. A thoughtful silence was followed by “You’re 33 years old now. Haven’t you learned that life is a sinking, sucking, swirling toilet bowl of misery and despair, punctuated by brief moments of false hope in an ever expanding and blackening universe?”

This verbal slap in the face enabled me put the issue in perspective and move on. My anger at my boss vanished and I never looked back.

And while I would not recommend telling most people that life is a sinking, sucking, swirling toilet bowl, the principle of moving toward a solution, rather than wallowing in the empathy of others is a valuable one. When we allow others to vent, and vent, and vent, we encourage them to see themselves as helpless victims.

So if just allowing someone to vent isn’t always helpful, and offering solutions isn’t always helpful, what should we do?

The answer is a middle path. It’s to both listen and push for solutions, but for those solutions to come from the other person. Here are seven ground rules for doing that:

1/ Let the other person vent until you are confident you understand not only what has happened, but also what feelings the person is experiencing. Questions such as “What happened then?”, “What made you do X?” or “How come you felt Y?” or “What were you feeling when that happened?” encourage the other person to fully explore the situation.

2/ Check that you understand. This not only helps correct any misunderstandings, it also enables the other person to feel understood and accepted. Someone who feels understood and accepted is much more likely to look for solutions than someone who still feels the need to explain themselves to us. Checking can be accomplished with questions like “It sounds like you were feeling hurt by what she said”, or “I’d guess you were feeling embarrassed when that happened” or “What I hear you saying is that you felt talked down to by your brother, is that right?”

3/ Show empathy. It’s hard for people to start thinking of solutions unless they feel the person across from them is on their side. “I can see how tough this must be for you” or “No wonder you were angry” or “Of course you feel hurt, anyone would feel hurt in this situation” are examples of showing understanding and care.

4/ Ask permission to begin looking for solutions. Although we may feel we’ve heard enough and allowed the person to vent for long enough, they may feel differently. Here are some things you can say to test the person’s readiness to talk about actions: “I’m wondering whether it would be worthwhile looking at ways in which you can fix the situation” or “This is a tough situation. What if we look at different things you can do about it?” Or “Does this feel hopeless, or do you think there might be something you can do to change things?”

5/ Ask what ideas they’ve had about possible solutions. The key is not to start volunteering ideas ourselves. Rather, pushing responsibility onto the other person to fix their problem gets them engaged and thinking instead of rejecting what we’ve come up with. “What ideas have you had for fixing this situation?” or “What are one or two things you could do to make yourself feel better?” or “Is the situation hopeless or can you think of something you can do about it?”

6/ Help them to explore their possible solutions. Having someone to help talk though their ideas can be enormously useful. Be careful not to throw cold water on their ideas directly — if something seems unworkable, we can simply ask them to talk about the pros and cons of the idea. That way, they will not be put in a position of defending their position. The objective is to have them come up with a range of ideas, explore (with the help of our questions) the good and bad of each one and come to a conclusion.

7/ Offer our own ideas. People in the depths of a problem sometimes have blinkered vision, and third party suggestions can be extremely useful. But it’s important that we present our ideas as preliminary thoughts or even questions, rather than fully formed complete solutions. Thus, for example we could say “I’m wondering what would happen if you were to leave the job” rather than “Your boss is obviously a terrible person and you should quit.” We could say “Your mother clearly makes you feel bad when you talk to her, so is it worthwhile considering reducing contact with her?” rather than “Stop talking to your mother so often.”

If you are a person who likes to just listen, it will be a challenge to become more solution-focused. And if you’re a typical solution-provider, it will be a big change to just listen, and to encourage others to come up with their own solutions. But if you’re able to do it, you’ll find your relationships deeper, richer and much more satisfying.


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