Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pet Peeve: Listening to Other People's Problems

I like people. I like to talk to them, spend time with them, and learn about them. With that comes the need to talk about more than what happened on TV last night, and occasionally to discuss issues that are less than pleasant. I'm fine with that, I think it's valuable and necessary for quality relationships. What I'm not great at, however, is listening to people's problems.
This scenario has never happened in real life.
Maybe it's just me, and maybe it's an issue that only I have, but I'm terrible at making people feel better. If someone comes to me and shares their problems, I have very little to offer them other than "Oh, that sucks. Sorry, man." They know it sucks. They're going through it. How can my assertion that yes, they are indeed in a difficult situation possibly do anything to help?
I see that you're about to fall to your death. That must be challenging for you.
This is not to say that I'm not a good person to talk to about your problems. On the contrary, I am able to offer a great deal of wisdom, knowledgeable advice, and personal experience (also, tons and tons of humility). But what I can't do is try to sympathize. The best response I've been able to come up with that is not advice is "I hate that for you." This may be one of the most useless platitudes around. How does someone respond to that? "It's very nice that you hate that for me, but I am doing a pretty good job hating it all by myself. Do you have anything of substance to offer? Perhaps a picture of an adorable kitten?"
If this doesn't cure your broken leg, I don't know what will.
So instead of attempting to sympathize with problems, I think it might be better to just listen to the situation and say something like this: "Your situation is clearly quite difficult, and I'm sorry that I can't fix it for you, but I would like to offer you the following advice: [insert wise advise that is available only from years of experience or extreme narcissism]. Does that help?" It'll help. It always helps.

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