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Oftentimes when I don't know how to deal with a situation, I'd like to talk to someone about how I feel about it. In this case, I am fishing for one of several things:

  • Advice on how to approach the situation
  • Emotional support
  • Buy-in for fixing the problem

However, often I get something along the lines of 'It sucks, just deal with it' as an answer. For me this answer is both useless and demoralizing.

One example of such a situation is when I'm working on a programming task using Scrum for two weeks and the end isn't in sight. I am getting quite burned out for working on the same thing for so long with little interaction with the rest of the team. Now I'd like to tell that I'm getting burned out in order to accomplish something like the following:

  • Emotional support to get going a little longer
  • Getting someone to relieve me of the work
  • Starting a discussion of doing better scrum by e.g. dividing the work in smaller chunks and allow them to be picked up by people other than me.

How can I express a problem in a way that elicits help, advice or support?


Edit:

I am generally talking with the team lead or talking about it with the entire team (e.g. during standup). Part of the problem for me is that communication with the team lead is the least successful for me compared to anyone else in the team because we consistently disagree on things. This disagreement stems from the fact that I want to fix things in a structural manner (I am a bit of an Autist in that sense), whereas he looks at it from a more practical perspective (i.e. only waste time fixing it after it breaks).

One of the problems I tend to have in conversations with him is that I don't have an example that 'exactly' describes the problem such that I can talk about a structural fix for the problem instead of being suggested a fix for just this one example without fixing the more general problem I am trying to address.

  • I edited to reflect the crux of the interpersonal question as I see it (effectively ask for a helpful response) more than the intrapersonal (deal with an unhelpful response) aspect. Feel free to revert or edit again if this doesn't reflect your needs. – Meg May 1 at 16:54
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    I'd like to know what you usually do/say in these conversations. Just so answers won't suggest approached you've already tried, and so we can give you some ideas about what in your current behaviour makes it so that you don't get the wanted replies. It's also good to know who you're having these conversations with, as you might need and expect different things when interacting with e.g. a scrum master/teamlead vs a random coworker you don't often speak with. Can you edit both pieces of information into your question? – Tinkeringbell May 1 at 17:34
  • @tinkeringbell I have edited the question now, but I have mixed feelings about the edit I made. On the one hand I feel like I am derailing my own question, but on the other hand I feel like the edit does address the bigger issue I'm struggling with. – Epicnoob May 1 at 19:20
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    Do you typically express what you are looking for to the people you're speaking with (are you asking for emotional support, or advice, etc.) or are you just venting about an issue? – Upper_Case May 1 at 19:23
  • @Upper_Case I try to express what I am looking for, but depending on who I'm speaking with I know that sometimes I am not well understood and I'm offered suggestions that don't feel at all helpful to me. – Epicnoob May 1 at 21:12
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I think there are a few things to consider when approaching this issue. One thing is that it is difficult for many people to hear what might seem like a 'generic complaint', and accurately determine how to respond. This can stem from an actual lack of empathy, a difficulty in reading others' cues, or simply a desire to avoid committing to a course of action that might offend. (For example, offering emotional support when someone wants advice can come across as condescending and unhelpful, and offering advice when emotional support is desired may seem cold and thoughtless. Responding to a complaint/expression of distress by proposing major structural changes could easily be seen as an overreaction). Sometimes it's easier and feels safer to do nothing, especially in a work setting where there is a perceived high social cost to getting it wrong and upsetting a coworker.

As the recipient of a complaint or expression of distress, I have gotten into the habit of asking, "Can I help you, or do you need someone to talk to about it?" In other words, "Are you hoping for advice/actions or emotional support?" If they say I can help, that usually also clarifies what kind of help they would value. This works really well in friends or family settings, but may seem too personal when applied to a work setting.

You are on the other side of this coin, making a bid for advice/support/change and finding that the people you approach don't know what to do, don't realize that they can or should do anything at all, or just don't seem to care. It's possible that they are being intentionally dismissive, but I think you will get better results by assuming that they want to be helpful, but are just missing the chance for a meaningful response by playing it way too safe.

The simple, but not always easy, way to improve the outcome of these conversations is to ask for what you want or need. You can slip this into conversation naturally, or be more direct, depending on your communication style and relationship with the listener. Let people know how you feel and what kind of outcome would help you with your situation or feeling. This involves being just a little vulnerable, and taking on some of that social risk that the non-responders are avoiding, but you might find it's very worthwhile. I've found it to be key in my personal relationships, where there is often a mismatch between one person seeking emotional support, and the other trying to 'fix it', or one person offering sympathy when the other just really needs some help with a hard task or some work taken off their plate.

In the most basic terms, the steps to having a 'needs conversation' are:

  1. This is my problem or situation
  2. This is how I feel about it or why it's a problem
  3. If you did this, it would help

For example, if you are burned out and need emotional support:

Hey work friend. You know, I've been really heads-down on this project for over a week now. I feel like I haven't even seen the rest of the team! I could use some actual human interaction. Want to walk over to Lunch Place with me at noon?

If you are struggling with a project and need advice or help

I've been working on Big Project for a while now, but I'm running into problems that I can't seem to solve. I'm starting to feel frustrated and I could use your expertise.

If you are constantly running into the same problem and it seems like the answer is structural change:

I feel like I'm constantly fixing bugs for Big Project, and it's costing a lot of time and energy. Would you be willing to meet up with me later and talk about what we can do to put a Fix Our Process Issues plan into place?

This isn't meant to be an exact script, but to demonstrate how to express to others this is how I feel and this is the kind of support that I need. This not only breaks others out of the "afraid to do something wrong so I do nothing" pattern, but also positions you as a person who is not just a complainer, but actively seeking to improve their situation. As a general rule, 'complainers' develop a reputation for negativity, but askers-for-help are seen as people who are positive even when things are hard, and can safely be asked for help in return.

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    This is some really helpful feedback Meg, thanks. You're right that I can be a lot clearer as to what kind of help I am expecting, leading to frustration on both sides. – Epicnoob May 2 at 17:57

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