6

Sometimes, you talk to someone about a problem you are facing and what you want them to say is something like:

Oh yeah, that sucks.

However, the person might not get the hint and well instead tell you things like:

Here is how you can fix the issue.

This happened to me recently in an online conversation with someone I didn't know that well and what I would like to do is a way to tactfully tell them

Please, don't try to solve my issue, I already know that won't lead anywhere/is a waste of both our times.

The problem is, when someone invests their time in helping you and you dismiss them, they may take it badly (I know my father gets offended when my mother does that to him).

So, how can I communicate this without hurting the other person's feelings?


I'm aware of this question. However, since this is about someone I don't know that well and in an online conversation, I believe the advice could be different.

  • @tuskiomi Because they don't know everything about the problem and I don't have the time/energy to explain everything to them (because I'm not looking for a solution) – Ælis Jun 20 at 13:59
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    So then It's given that you aren't looking for advice or help, either? – tuskiomi Jun 20 at 14:00
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    @tuskiomi Yes, I'm not looking for advice or help from this person. I just want some emotional support/someone to listen to my rant. – Ælis Jun 20 at 14:02
  • @DaveG No, it was more something like: "I need to rant" – Ælis Jun 20 at 14:30
10

I'm usually on the other side of the situation. When I was a kid I didn't understand that people may talk about their issues to unwind, not necessarily because they'd like others to help them.

The dismissing sentence I've probably heard the most and found most effective is

[Ah, good idea]/[Thank you for the advice]. I'm going to figure this out (eventually).

"I'm going to figure this out" is a gentle way to finish the conversation or direct it towards another topic. If you really don't know the person well or fear they may get offended by the dismissal, you may use that "Good idea" statement that politely acknowledges what they told you (without promising you're actually going to use it).

If they insist, you might want to thank them and say that you're taking a break from this task and will get back at it later on, hopefully with fresh ideas on how to tackle it. I'm not suggesting to lie about it by the way- taking a break really helps.

Another thing you could do is to disclaim you'd like to let some steam off and then say you're not looking for help, just willing to express your disappointment. The wording below may be a bit awkward, but I'd picture such a conversation to be along the lines of

Ælis: Oof that project is driving me crazy.

Coworker: What's happening?

Ælis: Erh, you know, that XYZ thing. I don't need help, it's just that ... you know ... it's getting on my nerves. [Explain the issue]

That way you specifically say you don't need/want help and would just like to talk about it and say how bothersome is the issue.

  • If you don't mind me suggesting another edit, maybe adding a "Don't worry" before the "I'm going to figure this out" would work even better? – Ælis Jun 20 at 12:38
  • I'm not sure it would really add much more to the statement. A contrario, it may hurt the person's feelings, as it may sound like you're dismissing their input completely (whereas you were the one who wanted to talk about the issue). Sounds a bit risky to me. But I haven't tried so if you want to, please do try! – avazula Jun 20 at 12:43
  • Thank for your comment, I didn't think that it could hurt the other person feeling, I'll try to take it into account. – Ælis Jun 20 at 12:48
7

Say it upfront.

If you lead with a comment like

I just want to vent a bit

and then go on to describe your frustrations, you've made it clear that what you want is to express your feelings, not that you are describing a problem you don't know how to solve. You've also avoided having the other person invest much time or effort into trying to help you figure out a solution, and therefore there is nothing to dismiss.

If the listener still tries to problem-solve (which will happen, at least sometimes), you can refer back to your initial comment that venting is all that you want. You told the listener that right away, so the issue isn't that you're rebuffing their help but that they misunderstood or forgot what you wanted.

The major issue I've encountered in situations like this one is that it's typically not very clear to all parties what the complainant wants (support vs. a solution) or what the listener expects. And it's frequently (but by no means always) the case that responding in the "wrong" way causes friction or distress. Clearly expressing what you want eliminates the uncertainty (though that doesn't guarantee that the listener will respond how you hope).

It can be hard to know what the "right" response is, and many people consider a statement like

That sucks

to be dismissive and shallow (which isn't really inaccurate). Offering a solution, or trying to do so, can seem like an attractive alternative as it demonstrates attention to and engagement with the complaints. Letting someone know that your aim is to express something, more than to receive a solution to something, can help indicate what the proper mode of response is.


My Experiences:

I've thought about and encountered this situation a lot, and I've come to feel that there is a two-sides-to-the-coin element to the seeking support/seeking solutions dynamic. Here are some observations I've made on the "other side" of this kind of interaction (if it matters for interpreting these, I am naturally inclined towards the "let's solve this problem" end of things):

What's primarily being asked for when someone wants to vent to me is my time and attention, with periodic comments from me expressing generic support (like "that sucks"). It doesn't really feel, to me, as though I'm participating because all I'm to do is offer a pre-determined, unvarying comment. That doesn't meant that it's an unreasonable thing to do, but it sometimes makes me feel replaceable and unimportant. The same things could be done by literally anyone, or even a notecard with the words "that sucks" written on it.

That sometimes makes it feel like an imposition on me, and sometimes that feeling produces odd effects in me. If it's one-off complaints about events in the day, that's usually fine. But if I hear complaints about the same issue, or type of issue, over and over again I can get a little bit resentful. If the issue is so bothersome that the venter needs this kind of support from me regularly, I might prefer that we try to solve the problem so that I don't need to have the same unsatisfying (for me) interaction over and over again. Resistance to that feels like the venter would rather regularly consume my time and attention than deal with the problem, which in effect creates a problem for me.

With the above in mind, I don't think that it's necessarily reasonable for anyone to expect their preferred mode of interaction all the time, simply because they want it. It's similarly unsatisfying for a person who only wants to problem-solve to have to listen and say "that sucks" at intervals as it is for someone who only wants a "that sucks" response to deal with someone trying to solve the problem. When both parties are in sync then there is no issue. When they're not, one party getting what they want is something of an imposition on the other, and that's worth keeping in mind.

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    I like this answer, and the trailing 2/3rds provides some more insight, but I think it would be stronger if it were shorter. I know there's a tendency on this site to go for the long,super-detailed answer, but in this case the meat is the very first sentence (which is great!). I think that gets a little lost in all the following detail. – DaveG Jun 20 at 15:04
  • @DaveG I think that you're right. I hadn't intended it to be so long, but after the separating line it got away from me a bit. I'll try to pare it down, after a short break so that I can review it with a fresher eye. – Upper_Case Jun 20 at 15:05
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    I really really like this answer. Please don't shorten it, the details are important. – reinierpost Jun 20 at 21:22
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    You don't have to only say "that sucks". Respond the same way you would if the person told you about exciting news: ask questions to get more detail, relate it to something that's happened to you to demonstrate you empathize, etc. If you do that, get a solid understanding of the whole issue, and still have some advice for the person (because your "solution" that came to mind within ten seconds of hearing the problem originally is probably not viable or they would have come up with it themselves; that's why that response is so frustrating), then they're much more likely to listen. – Kat Jun 26 at 18:16

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