Complaining or Working It Out?

October 20, 2012

I was recounting my tale of woe to a friend at lunch. My weekly “bread-and-butter” client decided she no longer needed my services. Suffering from dementia at age 86, she had been declining for several months. After six-and-a-half years of working together, the situation had gone toxic.

I knew our time together was winding down. You may be familiar with a similar scenario. You know you should make alternative plans, but what those plans are are clouded over by dealing with the present situation. Then a step is taken. And that’s what happened. A step was taken but not by me. The story I relayed to my friend was laced with concern. How was I going to find new business to replace what she provided?

About two minutes into my tale, my friend decided to steer the conversation into a more positive direction. “Let’s look at the positive side of things. There’s a lot to be grateful for.” Whoa! Wait a minute! I hadn’t finished my story. Her comments brought me up short. I still needed to explain how I felt and what I was going through. My friend’s effort to change the focus made it clear she didn’t want to hear any more of that side of the story. This made me wonder, “Was I complaining?” or “Was I working it out?”

Conversation is an exchange. The good listener has as much responsibility for the conversation as the speaker. If both want a worthwhile exchange, it means both walk away feeling they have been heard by the other. This means each must be allowed to speak her piece and not only listen to her partner but hear the whole message being conveyed. Sometimes what is not said is the real message. All the cues, both verbal and nonverbal, must be communicated and interpreted accurately. So, questions, feedback and mirroring are necessary tools for good communication.

In the days that followed the lunch I thought more about the incident. This is what I came up with:

I need time to dissect a situation, especially a painful one. I do most of my dissecting when I discuss a situation with a close friend. Close friends tell the truth and want the best for me. Our conversations allow me to articulate out loud (not in my head) how I interpret a situation. My close friends listen carefully to what I say and how I say it. They question me when I need to be questioned and support me when I need support. Through these conversations I gain clarity and self-confidence that I am handling or have handled a situation to the best of my ability—or that perhaps I could have handled it better.

Dissecting a situation may take several iterations. Close friends hang in there. They catch the nuances of change—whether I’ve moved forward or back or whether the situation has been altered. From my perspective, these iterations do not constitute complaining. Instead, it’s a working-out of the situation. How can I take the best care of myself? How can I handle a dicey situation with the highest level of professionalism? compassion? diplomacy? How can I assert myself when I haven’t been up to now? These are the kinds of questions I try to answer while “writhing,” or at least that’s how it feels, in a painful or difficult situation.

I had to make a judgment. Something I said triggered my friend’s discomfort. Why did she stop me midway in my story? She took control of the conversation and steered it to a more palatable topic—“look at the positive side of things.” I was caught off-guard. Should I have called her on it or let it go? I hadn’t finished what I wanted to say, yet if I bucked her and continued with my story, I thought it would sound as if I were complaining. She had shifted the focus and was ready to solve the problem. But what was the problem? For me, the problem was grappling with my fears. Would I find enough new business to sustain me? I knew she couldn’t solve that one.

A whole series of questions flooded the back of my mind: Was she a close enough friend to tell her how I really felt? Up to this point I had thought so. How do I expose my feelings without being adversarial or confrontative? Did I really want to regurgitate this story to someone who didn’t want to hear it? Would letting her know how I interpreted this exchange be worth the effort?

In the end I let it lie. It didn’t seem worth it. Instead I simply noted an unsatisfactory exchange between my friend and me. Maybe she was consumed with her own concerns and didn’t feel comfortable sharing them with me. Maybe something in her subconscious reared its ugly head and blocked our discussion. Maybe she was tired of hearing another iteration of my story. It’s all second-guessing, and that’s a waste of time.

What I gleaned from this exchange was clarity. Was I complaining or venting? My friend may have heard my laments as complaining, and complaining can be tiring, especially to the listener. The dictionary defines complaining as expressing grief, pain or discontent. According to Webster, I was complaining; however, I see my laments as the first step on the continuum of change. I had to vent my concerns. I needed a witness to listen as I worked my way through the muck of a painful situation. It was imperative for me to grieve a six-and-a-half year business relationship before I pick myself up and move on. For me, talking about it means grieving it.

You ask, “How long do you continue to complain or vent before moving on?” Probably not until the pain subsides. However, talking about it forever and ever is not going to help me either, but talking about it to grieve the pain and clarify my next steps seems valuable. Choosing the friends who can hang in there with me while I work it out is important, too. In the end, it’s a process.

Bev Hitchins © 2012

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