Assay: A Useful Term: the “Help-Rejecting Complainer.” “Why Don’t You Try…?” “No, That Won’t Help.”

Assay: Several months ago, during the Q-and-A period at a book event, a woman raised an issue that had many people nodding in agreement: “My eighty-year-old mother lives with me, and she’s a very negative person. She’s always complaining. I try to be positive and helpful, but nothing I say helps. I suggest all sorts of things to help cheer her up: ‘Why don’t you take a class?’ ‘Why don’t you go for a walk?’ ‘Why don’t you call your old neighbors?’ But she just say no, no, no. What should I do?”

I didn’t have any great insights to offer, but I recently read an article that got me thinking back on that conversation.

In a paper called “Complaining” by Robin Kowalski and Janet Erickson, in a fascinating volume, Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors (I read these books so you don’t have to), I read a description of “help-rejecting complainers.”

A “help-rejecting complainer” complains as a way to seek help and support, but then rejects any help that’s offered. Whenever anyone tries to make a constructive suggestion
— “Why don’t you try…?” or “Could you…?” — the help-rejecter insists that the advice is useless. In fact, help-rejecting complainers sometimes seem proud to be beyond help.

People often find help-rejecters annoying because first, the help-rejecter wants constant attention and two, it’s very frustrating when attempts at help are constantly refused.

If you’re facing a help-rejecting complainer, it can be useful just to realize this category of behavior. If you’re dealing with a help-rejecter, don’t expect to make any headway by dreaming up creative new suggestions. Don’t wear yourself out!

The paper suggests responding by acknowledging that you’ve heard the complaint and asking what the complainer intends to do – that way, the complainer is put in the position of coming up with a possible solution. If no solution is possible, just acknowledge the complaint and move on.

Of course, you should try to help a person who needs help. But sometimes efforts to help will just drain and distress you, without benefit to anyone else.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a chronic help-rejecting complainer, but I’ve been on the other side of this kind of situation — complaining about something, getting a series of impractical suggestions from someone who then gets annoyed when I don’t immediately follow that unhelpful advice.

As always, with happiness, the secret is mindfulness. Whether as a help-giver and help-getter, it’s useful to step back from any particular conversation and to look for broader patterns of behavior, especially when interactions with a particular person always seem to end unhappily.

Do you know anyone who fits the description of a help-rejecter? How do you handle it?

* If you’re interested in scientific studies that touch on the issue of happiness, check out Brain Blogger — “topics from multidimensional biopsychosocial perspectives.”

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  • http://www.literarylunchbox.wordpress.com Karen

    Sometimes people don’t really want help- they want sympathy! Men are usually the ones who rush to “solving” the problem. You say: so-and-so at work was really mean to me today, here’s what she said… Can you believe it? And he says, “You should have said X!” or “You should talk to your boss about this, it’s his job to straighten her out.” Or some other “solution.” When what you really want to hear is “Gosh, that’s so tough. You must be really annoyed.”

    I wonder what the daughter of the 80-year old complainer would hear from her mom if instead of saying “take a class,” or “go for a walk,” she said, “Gee, Mom, you seem so unhappy!” If she listened to what her mom said next, she might get a better idea of what the real problem is.

    Also, “Is there anything I can do to help?” is maybe a better question than trying to guess the kinds of things that might cheer her up.

    My husband and I used to have these kinds of circular guessing games around where we want to go out to dinner. We solved it by each of us thinking of three places we’d be willing to go – usually we will overlap by at least one and problem solved. What used to happen is I would list my restaurants in order of preference until I finally hit one he was willing to go to. When you get down to 5th or 6th on the list, it’s really annoying. This way he has to come up with three also!

    • http://musicfortots.blogspot.com Cathy

      Hey, that’s a great idea. My husband and I have the same problems trying to decide where to go for dinner on Friday night.

  • http://www.inspiredconsulting.net Steve

    Eric Berne describes exactly this situation in his book “Games People Play,” calling it “Why don’t you – Yes but.” As every possible solution to the presented problem is rejected, Berne suggests that the purpose of the complaint is not to get a solution but for much deeper reasons, too complex to go into here but one of which could be, as Karen suggests, sympathy or validation. It’s almost like, by rejecting every possible/potential solution, they want you to admit that their problem (or complaint) is as insoluble as they say it is. It’s not a game you can ever win, so don’t even play…

  • http://www.anonymous8.com Sarah Baron

    Great post and a great term. Sometimes I feel guilty making suggestiong to “help-rejector complainers” after I’ve done it. This guilt comes later when I reflect on the conversation, wondering if they just need someone to empathize with them and just listen…

  • Val

    Oh everybody probably knows at least one! LOL. And true, sometimes a person mostly just wants a bit of sympathy, isn’t really in the place yet to figure out a solution.

    But the help rejecting complainers have this relentless pattern. I find it helps me to listen a lot and then share a laugh later with my husband about it.

  • http://twitter.com/ethoshopper EthoShopper

    I think unsolicited advise does not work. I think rather than giving advice suggestions can be framed as questions to consider alternatives or to find the true motivation behind the problem. Offering support for a new path is helpful. The first step towards change is always the hardest.

    • Fenner Kb

      but it is easy to think (perhaps incorrectly) that by complaining, one is soliciting advice….

  • http://keepbabbling.blogspot.com Jessica

    In my household, the phrase “Why don’t you…” is banned. I actually wrote a whole blog post on this topic (http://keepbabbling.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-dont-you-trying-living-with-mono.html) and why it’s banned, but the simple answer is that my brain hears the phrase literally and feels compelled to respond with a “Because” answer. So if you ask, “Why don’t you do this?” I will feel the need to tell you why I’m not doing that. My husband came up with the substitute phrase, “Have you considered…” and for whatever reason, it completely changes the situation and prevents me from being a help-rejecter.

    • http://livingthebalancedlife.com Bernice Wood

      What a great idea Jessica! Good insight into yourself to figure this out!
      Bernice
      Are you too busy to be yourself?

  • Freyjah

    I’ve found that it helps to acknowledge the complaint/problem (“Yes, that is a big issue”) and then ask “how are you going to handle it.”

    The flip side of the coin is to realize that not every commentary on an issue is an invitation–or a demand–for solutions. I’ve learned to make people explicitly ask for advice or fafours. It works with help-rejecters and it also cuts down on the feeling of being manipulated.

  • bearing

    Boy, I’d be tempted to say as sympathetically as I could, “It sounds like you want me to feel sorry for you.”

  • Nigel

    Interesting how many people encounter this behaviour, but how few admit to behaving in such a way themselves.

  • Anne

    Thanks for yet another useful post and thought-provoking comments from readers. I think I’ve been on both ends of the help-rejection dilemma, and now I have some tools to deal with it constructively.

  • http://www.traveling-through.com Julie

    It took me many years of suggesting and being rejected by complaining family members, and a few more years of counseling, to finally realize that no matter how brilliant my solutions were the complainer didn’t want to hear what I had to say. There is less stress if I shut up and listen or just ask a “what do you think?” type of question.

  • David Conrad

    It sounds like such a person is looking for sympathy, attention, or validation. If it’s someone you care about, and that’s all they’re after, then I would say, by all means, give them some sympathy, attention, and validation.

  • Reneeo

    Truly there are the help rejectors, BUT some people come up with the lamest solutions and “think” that is the answer. My sister has an answer and solution for everything. I don’t tell her anything any more.

    • tina

      Agreed–I do it though I know my situation is futile because I have some smidgen of hope that everyone around me is way smarter than me and has found a magical way to fix my problem. I just wallow sometimes though and telling someone makes me feel better about it… that is why therapy exists. Hell, my friends and I joke saying friends are “free therapy.”

      My hopes are usually quashed though as everyone gives me extremely stupid solutions, sometimes just to shut me up. I really don’t like it because people who complain about complainers tend to be  serious complainers themselves and narcissistically don’t want to talk about anyone’s problems but their own. At least me and my friends listen to each other.

  • BJ McCabe

    I like how my mother describes the chronic whiner when telling me stories. The preamble goes like this… “So and so has enjoyed ill health for years!” Every time I hear that sentence set up, it makes me smile. I truly believe that some people are content with their complaints. I don’t think that contentment is the same thing as being happy, but its a something.

  • Teamocil

    I work with a HRC. After a year of becoming more and more upset by having my endless solutions rejected by him, I came to realize that there were a few deeper things going on with him:

    1. Fear of change. In particular, the uneasy comfort of routine he feels in his life is preferable to the uncertainty he may face in making changes. To change his life is to change his comfort zone, and he’s not going to do that.

    2. There often follows a heavy sense of justification to how he thinks, and often a nostolgia for how things used to be, even though they were never actually how he remembers them. I see this as a search for a sense of identity that aligns itself with something that doesn’t change, namely the past. The more the present/future changes the more wrapped in his identity of how things were becomes.

    3.There is no sense of his future self. He rarely has any plans for what he wants when he retires, or where he wants to live, or what else he wants to do for a living. He is, in a way, drifting, and any solid, future based decision would cause him to leave the comfort of not having to make a decision about himself.

    As for how to deal with him, I’ve found if I engage him for a few minutes, let him complain, and then excuse myself to go to the bathroom or kitchen, it usually placates him enough to not wander back anytime soon. Hopefully, he’s not getting wise to me yet.

  • Jmann

    I work with a help-rejecting complainer. Nearly every word out of her mouth is a complaint and for the first year I worked with her, I offered solution after solution to her problems. It finally occurred to me that this woman just wants to complain and isn’t necessarily looking for solutions to her problems, so I just stopped acknowledging her complaints. If she doesn’t want help and I do’nt have a solution, then I refuse to acknwlodge constant negativity and compalaining..

  • http://nomorefrump.blogspot.com Annie Petersen

    I’ve noticed that I am, in fact, a help-rejecting complainer.

    Me: “I’m home alone, what should I do?”
    Friend: “Why don’t you go to a movie?”
    Me: “Alone? Why would I do that!?”
    Friend: “I do it all the time. You could give yourself a pedicure.”

    I find that help-rejecting behaviour is also self-rejecting. We sometimes think that we feel better by continually being offered help and advice. It’s a twisted way of getting attention, but it’s not the attention we want. What we really want, sometimes, is that person to come and keep us company. Perhaps it’s a co-dependence problem.

    Anyhow, while on vacation just recently I discovered that statements that are direct, as opposed to questions actually offer me a way to act.

    A friend says, “you are free, you can do whatever you want.” Then, I realize, I can. Instead of offering suggestions, she enabled me to realize that she was right. I get to decide.

    Read about it in my newest blog post. Get the Frump Out of Your Rump: Being “Open” Can Change Your Life http://t.co/iZhfPJ3

  • Nicole

    Thank you very much for this insight. I currently live with my grandmother and have been face some difficulties with her complaining.
    I have also found that breathing is one way to centre me and help me stay calm.

    Thank you,
    Nicole
    thedailywisdom.blogspot.com

  • Fortin Charles Alex

    Thats it, I am moving from Québec to Montreal to continue studying in a different language and to work part time in my field of stufy. But oh! I got a lot of “Why dont you do this…?” It’s true, at first, I was asking myself a lot of questions, I wasnt sure about what I should do. I think he best thing to do is to write a pros and cons list, follow your heart and follow your dreams. I dont think you can go wrong if you follow your heart. There will always be people to propose you stuff or to place doubt in your mmind. “listen to yourself”

  • Spoinkolicious

    My wife becomes a help-rejecting complainer, about once a month.

    • Mindy

      Your comment made me smile, as I was thinking that at times, I become a help-rejecting complainer. Usually not too often, and usually it’s a sign of overwhelm. But, it could be cylical for me, too.

  • http://allison.gryski.com/ Allison

    I find being around habitually negative people draining and unpleasant even if I’m not trying to offer solutions. Being the advice-giver isn’t always a helpful position, though. Sometimes people are not interested in advice because they know the problem will go away or they have their own solution in mind, and what they’re really looking for is some sympathy in the present. Remember to ask if it’s wanted before leaping in with advice. It might be more helpful to give sympathy and acknowledgement than a bunch of advice and suggestions.

    • http://communicatrix.com communicatrix

      The asking-before-offering tip is on the money, Allison. My sister finally cured me of unsolicited advice-giving by reminding me, in exasperation, that she was relating a story, not asking for help.

      She’s not an HRC, but getting re-conditioned by her has helped me enormously in dealing with HRCs, I now realize. I think it’s something about getting a little distance b/w me and my habitual responses. I can be a little, uh, hair-trigger on stuff.

  • discoveredjoys

    My late father was a confirmed help rejecting complainer. He had been ‘negative’ all his life (his ‘luck’ was always bad) but as he got older and more lonely after my mother died, every offer of help was rejected or criticised.

    Like several other posters, and the blog, I suspect that much of the HRC behaviour was done to solicit attention. I also wonder if my father used it as a way of continuing to ‘control’ the relationship. A sort of passive-negative aggression (if that is not too contradictory).

    In the end I found two things that worked. The first thing was that I learned how to glaze over and not take the complaints too seriously. It sounds ‘hard’ but he was no worse off and I wasn’t being sucked down into his depression.

    The second thing I found was that by phrasing the suggestion in an indirect manner, such as “I heard on the radio that…” or “I read somewhere that other people…”, the advice often lodged in his mind. Because it was ‘indirect’ there was nothing to reject and he could come around to ‘his’ idea in his own time. I got him to start using a cane and a shopping trolley that way.

    He still complained about the shortcomings of the gas fire we gave him though… but I guess that was too direct.

  • bmcm

    My brother is a HRC, and I’ve had to learn to deal with it. It took me years to realise what was going on, but now I just offer one or 2 ideas, then say “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do in that case.” Others were quicker on the uptake, and he rarely got people to listen to him for long.

    I also got him to specifically ask for ideas (as other posters have suggested) before offering them. “So, do you want some ideas?”

    That way, I have been helpful, I cut the game short, protect my own mood, and he can carry on complaining (to someone else.) When you see it’s a game, you can change the rules…

    On the flip side, you’ve noted that sometimes advice given is not that helpful. We need to be graceful and grateful here I think. Something I learned to do was acknowledge the idea and the effort, but say that the idea doesn’t sit well with me, or words to that effect. So it’s not that it’s a bad idea, it’s just that it’s not right for me. Sometimes a very small difference in words can mean a lot.

  • breathejustbreathe

    When I analyze the HRCs that come to my mind, I think it’s partly about the DRAMA. One woman in particular loves to make an entrance to an event, rushing into the room (late of course) with a “you won’t believe what went wrong today!” No way does she want solutions–she’s on stage! In an HRC’s mind, complaining makes for a more interesting script.

  • KCCC

    Two sides here…

    I used to work with an HRC, and got sucked into the “Why don’t you/because” game too much. I finally decided that I was owning HER problems, and needed to stop. So, I set up my own rules: Three strikes and you’re out. When invited to play, I offered 3 suggestions. If all of them were met with “yes, but” then I was out of the game. I’d close with something like “That’s really too bad. Sounds like you’ll just have to live with the situation.” Usually, she’d pick up one of the discarded suggestions and say “I guess I could…” as if it were her own idea. And I’d just make encouraging noises at that point.

    She was an extreme case, and I was young. But I learned…

    Later in life, a significant other always wanted to charge in and “fix” things – often before I had even finished laying out the issue, so his “advice” didn’t even match the situation. Plus, I didn’t need him to “fix” it, just to listen for five minutes while I sorted it out for myself. It was incredibly annoying to be offered such unsolicited and off-target advice.

    In contrast, another friend would listen, but then say “what are you going to do?” when I started being repetitive. Great question, that turned me to problem-solving for myself.

    So now, I try to let everyone around me own their own problems. If asked, I offer suggestions (gently, using phrasese like “have you considered” or “would it be possible” rather than “why don’t you”), but mostly I just listen for a bit, maybe prompt with “what are you going to about it?” and then move on.

    That’s easier on us both.

  • http://livingthebalancedlife.com Bernice Wood

    As a parent, it makes me realize we need to be careful not let our children get into this mode. Instead of always suggesting solutions, ask them what they think they might be able to do. I could see how some of these behaviors can get ingrained as a child!
    Bernice
    Are you too busy to be yourself?

  • Levelform

    Thank you so much for acknowledging this type of person. My MIL is a perfect example of this behavior. It’s really sad to see the slow self-destruction she’s put herself in. Ten years ago, when her husband died, she vowed she would never date or marry anyone else. She just “couldn’t do it”. Since then she’s had to support herself. She’s led a very unfruitful career as a realtor particularly these past couple of years and has reduced her friendships down to only one person because no one can stand her.

    My husband and I tried in vain to offer suggestions and even help her many different ways, but it’s always met with “No” or “I can’t do that”. It’s one of the most annoying personality traits I’ve ever had to be in contact with. Unfortunately after all this, she’s about to declare bankruptcy and potentially lose her house.

    We don’t know how else to help other than not helping.

  • Peninith1

    In the spirit of listening carefully to see if BOTH parts of this advice / discussion could apply to me, I remember once reading a TERRIFIC suggestion: “Only complain to the person who can fix the problem.” Wow, so right that taking it to the person / entity in whose circle of influence the solution lies is the right thing to do with a genuine complaint–the doctor, the mechanic etc. This reminder has caused me to at least ask myself if I am complaining or just kvetching. On the other hand, the knee jerk ‘why don’t you. . . ‘ response could be as annoying as the complaint! I remember from your book, Gretchen, your technique of ‘writing it down’ for your children. That might be a great way to slow everyone down and injecting a little humor while at the same time indicating that you really heard the complaint.

    • Patricia

      This year I’m trying to stay 30 consecutive days without complaining and so far I haven’t managed a single one. I wrote down your suggestion “only complain to the person who can fix the problem” next to my bed and will read it first thing in the morning. In most cases that person would be me, no point in voicing my complaints to others. Thanks so much for this advice, I’m sure I’ll benefit from it.

  • Tzipi

    Whenever I encounter a negative person, especially an elderly person who always complains, I use it as an opportunity to remind myself of how important it is to work on myself. Being happy, having positive things to say, focusing on the good in your life takes real work. How totally sad and tragic it is to arrive at any age and all you have to say for your life experience is a bunch of complaints.

  • Ann

    It’s been my experience that most people’s helpful suggestions aren’t all that helpful. For the most part, they’re impractical, inappropriate or even destructive, if only because they’re made based on inadequate information. A complaint describes only one part of a problem, not the entire problem, and no solution based on only one part of the problem will solve the entire problem. Sometimes, it can make things worse.

    On the other hand, most people can and even want to work out their own solutions, and will usually do so if encouraged.

    Very often, those labeling others as “help-rejecting complainers” are part of the problem. They want to be right. They want to be better than the person with the problem. They want to swoop in and fix everything, then bask in the ensuing admiration and gratitude.

    In truth, I think, people do better when they solve their own problems, even if it wouldn’t be our solution, and acting as a sounding board can facilitate that a lot more effectively than playing fix-it with someone else’s life. As temping as it might be to think we know best, it’s better to let difficulties be an opportunity for problem-solving rather than an opportunity for us to prove our own superiority.

    I struggle with this daily as a mother. My son is in his teens, which means a lot of complaining, and the impulse to try to fix it comes from several different directions at once.

  • Francesca

    This is interesting. I read this, feeling that I (particularly about a current problem I have) fall into this category of HRC. Then you said this:

    I’m pretty sure I’m not a chronic help-rejecting complainer, but I’ve been on the other side of this kind of situation — complaining about something, getting a series of impractical suggestions from someone who then gets annoyed when I don’t immediately follow that unhelpful advice.

    See, I think that’s what EVERY HRC feels, that the advice they are receiving is not helpful. Fact is, it is helpful (or quite possibly may be helpful) but the HRC is unable to ‘see’ that due to their own psychological blocks. Every time someone gives me some advice, I analyse it, subconsciously ‘block it’ and announce it ‘unhelpful.’ If I analyse the ‘broader patterns’ it may be, that for some reason, I don’t want to fix this particular problem; that to do so would be too confronting somehow. I’m not sure but it is interesting to think about.

    I’m just saying that the best HRC will always construct the advice as ‘unhelpful’ – it’s all part of the rejection.

  • Mutualrespect7

    The presumptuousness of giving advice can be annoying. Why not try listening and/or asking questions? It’s not that easy to help people: intentions just don’t cut it. Help is in the eyes of the beholder. Too many people attempt to help others in ways that puts the “helpee” in an unequal and subordinate position.

    Of course, if you’re talking about “help-rejection” as an attention-seeking behavior rather than an assertion of dignity and boundaries, maybe it’s a different story.

  • Amy

    With close friends, I try my best to offer some heartfelt suggestions, but if they keep rejecting, I suggest something completely silly and unhelpful. For example if a friend is complaining about how there is no way to improve their commuting experience, I might say ‘you just need your own private jet.’ It snaps the person out of complaining a little, and usually gets a laugh, which even if a bit forced, still lightens the mood.

  • http://musicfortots.blogspot.com Cathy

    That makes me think about when my teenagers were trying to find a creative way to ask someone to the Prom. I would come up with a million cute, creative ideas, but they wouldn’t like any of them. Then it dawned on me, they wanted to create the idea themselves. It was more fun that way. So I quit making suggestions and just listened to theirs.
    That sounds like my daughter looking for a job. I offer suggestion after suggestion, but she has a negative answer for each. Finally I realized what was happening and stopped giving her suggestions. Now I listen, sympathize and get on with my life.

  • Repsych

    The “help-rejecting complainers” are also called people who play the “yes, but…” game. I have a friend like that and even though I love her I try to stop myself from giving any advice to her. It’s so draining and it takes a toll on my happiness.

  • http://twitter.com/vlb Vicki Brown

    The more of these comments I read, the more I have to wonder about the difference between the “complainers” and the “solutionizers”. Were your solutions really “brilliant”? Was your advice really warranted?

    Not every statement is a problem to be solved. Not every “complaint” requires a solution.

    This reminds me of something I realized sometime back about “nagging”. Nagging is supposedly such a bad thing. But it’s impossible to nag without a naggee – a person who insists on not changing a particular behaviour. For every “Pick up your socks!” there’s an equal and opposite “I won’t”.

    Somewhere out there, an “HRC” getting ready to write an article about all those “helpful” people who mistakenly feel that every comment is a request for advice… and how draining it is to have to listen to that over and over and over.

    If they don’t want your “solution”, they don’t want it. The reasons may be myriad. Let’s not judge too harshly.

    p.s. I Love the idea of saying “Have you considered…?” instead of “Why don’t you?” But I think “Do you wat my thoughts?” should be asked first.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a very important point: the complaining person may not want
      solutions, and may find them not only useless, but intrusive and annoying.

      I think the frustration arises on the solutionizers side when a person keeps
      complaining about a situation, but doesn’t seem to want to do anything about
      it. Not every complaint needs to be aired. If a person keeps complaining,
      it’s a natural instinct for people to try to help — if only to get the
      complaints to stop.

      This reminds me of the tigger/eeyore tension…
      http://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2010/10/are-you-annoyed-b
      y-excessively-cheery-people-or-extremely-gloomy-people-part-ii.html

  • jenny_o

    I agree with the commenters who suggest the chronic complainers may be looking for sympathy.

    I would also like to suggest that, for a surprising number of people, complaining is their version of making conversation.

    I sympathize with those who must listen constantly to others being negative and rejecting help; have you considered the above interpretations?

  • Tracy

    There is, of course, a spectrum of complaining. I definitely find that when I am most out of sorts and try to talk about it with my close family I feel worse when suggestions are made – which then in turn frustrates the person I’m talking to. What I’ve realized is that when I have a problem I want to talk about it, but I’m not looking for someone to solve it for me, I just want to talk it out. If it was as easy as a simple suggestion I wouldn’t be feeling so badly. I’ve been trying to figure out how to communicate this. It seems from the comments that a lot of people identify with being on the other side of this problem. It’s not really the same as being a chronic complainer necessarily, it’s more about being unhappy.

  • Jessica R

    This makes me think about how they tell us to react to children’s tantrums. (I work in a preschool setting) The first step is just to acknowledge the child’s feeling. “I see that you are upset that it is time to clean up.” You’d be suprised how many of the children just stop throwing a fit because they know their feelings were heard.
    Whereas if you try to throw suggestions at them (“we can sing a song, we’re picking up to go outside, why dont I help you”) it usually doesn’t help.

  • http://coffeejitters.net/blog Judy Schwartz Haley

    I’m curious why people feel like they need to tell someone who’s sharing a challenge what to do? Generally, when I want to share something I’m going through, I’m not asking someone to solve all my problems or tell me something obvious like using diaper cream could help with my daughter’s diaper rash. I’m just sharing what’s consuming my thoughts.

    “The paper suggests responding by acknowledging that you’ve heard the complaint and asking what the complainer intends to do – that way, the complainer is put in the position of coming up with a possible solution. If no solution is possible, just acknowledge the complaint and move on.”

    This was great advice, much better than offering up suggestions that are so obvious that they’re insulting.

  • Terlur

    so true, esp. in these difficult employment times. I have several friends who are out of work and very discouraged. I’ve tried sending work opportunity suggestions to them, but they are usually met with, already done that, won’t work, not what I want to do, etc. The worst is a friend who cries about “no one helping her”, when I suspect that her “I have all the answers” attitude is turning away prospective employers. I have chosen indirect descriptions of effective interviews, instead.

  • Sdcafcap

    This topic is very interesting. I work with a support group for woman with alcohol addiction. I’ve encounted many woman like the one you’ve described. It can be frustrating, but I think we can all be like that at some point in our lives until we’re ready to actually do something to change things. And I think the keyword is “ready”. People can suggest and try to help, but until your ready, really ready, no one can persuade you do it.

  • Cheryl York

    I am VERY sure my ex husband would say that I was a HRC. But after reading the article and most of the comments, I have to say that Ann’s comment was the one that hit the nail on the head for me, here is what she wrote again…
    “It’s been my experience that most people’s helpful suggestions aren’t all that helpful. For the most part, they’re impractical, inappropriate or even destructive, if only because they’re made based on inadequate information. A complaint describes only one part of a problem, not the entire problem, and no solution based on only one part of the problem will solve the entire problem. Sometimes, it can make things worse.

    On the other hand, most people can and even want to work out their own solutions, and will usually do so if encouraged. Very often, those labeling others as “help-rejecting complainers” are part of the problem. They want to be right. They want to be better than the person with the problem. They want to swoop in and fix everything, then bask in the ensuing admiration and gratitude.

    In truth, I think, people do better when they solve their own problems, even if it wouldn’t be our solution, and acting as a sounding board can facilitate that a lot more effectively than playing fix-it with someone else’s life. As temping as it might be to think we know best, it’s better to let difficulties be an opportunity for problem-solving rather than an opportunity for us to prove our own superiority.”

    So many people find therapy, well…therpeutic! I find that the revolving door aspect of it being made to talk fast while the timer ticks and when you have people waiting in front of you and behind you (literally) for their 45 min…it is actually just stressful for me. Running has been much more beneficial to me but unfortunately I live in New England where we are getting another foot of snow as I type( wait, was that a complaint?? yes, but I already know I need to move south for my golden years). Sometimes, not offering SOLUTIONS but chances for relaxation (running,yoga, hot tubs, even just going out for coffee etc) can be the ticket that complainers like myself really need. So, the next time I complain about snow, let me know where the nearest indoor treadmill or hot tub is and I’ll stop!

    • siamesekat

      I hear what you are saying, but I guess I would say that if you don’t want to be on the receiving end of advice for others, you shouldn’t really go around “complaining,” per se. What you really should do is talk about your ideas for solving your problems. And keep it short and sweet.

      Or better yet, just keep your problems to yourself.

      I have a lot of help rejecting complainers in my life and I must admit my patience is wearing thin!

  • Pam Huggett

    Thank you for this approach. I have a relative who is a help-rejecting complainer who drives me crazy! She has advice for everyone, but has herself backed into a corner on so many levels, that when she is offered pracical advice or help, she refuses it flat out. There is always a reason why simple solutions to her problem won’t work. Now I plan on not offering any suggestions and letting her complain.

  • Cheryl

    I call those people ‘yeah, but…..’ people. No matter what you say, their answer begins with those two words. I’ve started trying to say, “Yes, you’re probably right” which stops the conversation in its tracks. Of course, I often try to offer 1 or 2 suggestions first before I concede to their ‘greater wisdom’.

  • Tom

    I just wanted to point out that some people, and this is a minority of cases but I still think it is important to point out, may have a mental condition that prevents them from just applying some little tidbit of advice to their life and feeling better. My aunt, for example, has suffered from major depression for 30 years. Sometimes when she shares her feeling with someone who doesn’t understand her depression well, they will say, “Well why don’t you just….(insert tidbit of advice here, e.g., think positively, go on a walk, do something new etc)” But people with major depression just DON’T feel better after doing things like that. So, to my aunt, advice givers come across as saying, “Well if you were strong-willed you would know what makes you happy and you would do it.” That is just an incorrect point of view. Sometimes it’s best to just support someone when they feel down, not to impart a piece of your infinite wisdom to them.

    • gretchenrubin

      You are absolutely right, and this is a very important point. To my mind,
      the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression — which is its own
      category, a grave, urgent condition that requires immediate attention, and
      every tool that can be used to combat it.

  • Mary

    I learned from a friend of mine the power of the sympathetic sigh or “mmmm’ sound. It comes in a multitude of tones, each implying a different level of sympathetic hearing. Sometimes accompanied by a side-to-side head movement that indicates “I can believe you have to put up with this”. She learned it from her mother. It’s helps me avoid being pulled into a complaint conversation where anything I say may later be used against me. And it soothes the complainer.

  • happygirl

    I agree that often this is a male/female problem; we females want to discuss our “problems” of the day, and our significant other males want to “help” us, when all we wanted was a sympathetic ear. This is a different behaviour from the chronic complaints that a HRC has; those entail complaining about the same problem, over and over and over again.
    I have made it a habit to ask the complainer, “Are you wanting advice from me?” That makes it simple – either the complainer DOES want advice, and I give it, or he doesn’t, and I just listen or walk away.

  • Dan Fox

    Extreme case (and this one is REALLY extreme):

    A friend of mine lost his job three years ago. After he’d been out of work for some time, I offered a couple of suggestions: “The Burger Palace is hiring”, “Have you looked on Craigslist?” The answers were: “I wouldn’t enjoy doing that kind of work,” and “Yes, I looked, but they didn’t have anything for me.” OK, he didn’t want my help, so I backed off.

    After he’d been receiving unemployment for 99 weeks, it ended, leaving him totally without income. “The Housing Agency helps people who are risk of homelessness, have you talked to them?” A bunch of weaseling around the question of whether he’d actually called them, then “They don’t have any aid for white males, just for women with kids.” OK, I backed off again.

    Six months after his unemployment ended and he stopped paying rent, he got a 60-day eviction notice. “Legal Aid can help you with that.” “I don’t see how they can help, I do owe the money.”

    Yesterday, on the date listed on the eviction notice, the sheriff came and padlocked his door. “They didn’t even give me time to get any of my clothes!” he said, simultaneously indignant and fighting off tears. It didn’t seem appropriate to point out to him that he’d known for quite some time that this was coming.

    And now he’s frantically calling everyone he knows trying to line up a sofa to sleep on tonight. And nobody wants to let him stay because it is all too obvious that he’s taking a totally passive tack in his life. He doesn’t want a job, he’s not willing to make the slightest effort to get what public aid is available (“I can’t stand dealing with that kind of bureaucracy”), and none of his friends – including me – want to end up supporting him for the rest of his life.

    It’s going to be interesting seeing where things go from here.

  • Jason

    This is coveredin Eric Berne’s “games people play” (1964). The game is “why don’t you – yes but”. “… White objects with “yes but”, a good player can stand off the others indefinitely until they all give up.

    “A bare transcript may sound Adult, but in the living tissue it can be observed that white presents herself as a Child inadequate to meet the situation; whereupon the others become transformed into sage Parents anxious to dispense their wisdom for her benefit. “

    • Jason

      failed to originally notice this has already been mentioned in the comments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/whitehawkjulie Julie Lawrence

    HRCs aren’t looking for help – they’re looking for empathy. Giving them “solutions” is usually perceived as an attempt to shut them up (which it generally is).  Marshall Rosenburg, inventor of NonViolent Communication, suggests that we try reflecting their feelings, and the unmet needs behind the feelings – this takes them out of the “story” in their heads (which can go on forever) and into their hearts, where healing happens.