Wednesday, July 30

Sympathy considered harmful

You start chatting with Adam by the water-cooler. He starts complaining about Brett. Your first instinct is to sympathize. And if Brett is Adams significant other that is absolutely what you should do.

If on the other hand they are two co-workers and it is important to you that they work together well, perhaps you should consider stating the obvious. The obvious being that the best way for Adam to resolve his communication problem with Brett is to actually talk to Brett (If you dig deep enough you usually find a communication problem at the bottom of it).

It is amazing how often people try to resolve a lack of communication by talking to everybody except the person involved.

Sometimes using a roundabout method is justified. Sometimes if you run into a roadblock with someone, and you are making no progress, by making your case to some one you both trust, you can create a bridge between the difficult person and yourself. But usually this is not what is happening, Adam is usually seeking sympathy not a bridge.

Worse they could be trying to form an alliance against Brett. Teamwork and co-operation is rarely improved by creating a “them” and an “us” within the team.

If you ask Adam whether they have talked to Brett about the behaviour they are complaining to you about, they might say that they have, but when you dig deeper you find they have given hints, rather than approaching the subject directly. The word "should" starts to appear frequently in the conversation. "Should have realized". "Should Understand". The word "should" can be quite a dangerous word. People should do many things but usually do not.

My preference is to concentrate on people’s actual behaviour and how I can encourage behaviour that results in better outcomes, rather than indulging in righteous indignation.

Next time this happens to you, perhaps you could consider becoming an active part of the solution, rather than a passive part of the problem. I know that this can be a difficult thing to keep in mind when you are lending a sympathetic ear to a friend, but the benefits can be a more peaceful environment.

Dear Reader,
What is your opinion? Would you leave well enough alone and just sympathize, or would you encourage Adam to talk further with Brett to try to resolve the problem?