A Sympathetic Ear: Helpful Or A Waste Of Time.

25 Aug

So last week, we got into conversation about problem-solving at the office. And, like all good conversations, it turned into a battle of the sexes.

Background: A male co-worker having gotten into a heated discussion at home the previous night, asks a female co-worker why females get mad when they share a problem with a male and he offers solutions. Another male co-worker chimes in and says because women just want you to sit there and listen to them complain. The female co-worker retaliates by saying that not all problems need fixing and that men are obsessed with taking care of things. She moves on to point out that many times women already work out a solution for themselves and are merely looking for a sympathetic ear. This prompts male co-worker #1 to yell,”That’s absolutely irrational! Sitting here and listening to you complain is a complete waste of time. If I see you have a problem, and I care about you, then I will try to help you figure it out. End of story.”

Personally, here’s how I see it. Every time someone comes at you with a problem, you have to determine what they ultimate want out the encounter: either an exchange of solutions and ideas or an ear that listens. You can’t just automatically assume that either way is the right way to go. If you do, you risk not helping them, but making the matter even worse. With that said, some folks have a gift for sympathy while others have a gift for problem resolution and studies have shown that women skew more towards the former, while men skew towards the latter (How the two sexes get along is beyond me).

Ideally, it’s probably best to be good at both. That way, once you determine which is wanted or needed,  you can effectively act. That day, I posited that it’s better to  ask, “Do you want my advice?” before offering it up. It’s usually a pretty good indicator of what role needs to be filled. While a person may not answer truthfully in every instance, at least you’re justified when suggestions start flowing.

Let me know what your thoughts are readers. Sympathetic ear vs. problem resolution. Is it helpful just to listen sometimes, or is it a complete waste of time?


Posted by on August 25, 2010 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “A Sympathetic Ear: Helpful Or A Waste Of Time.

  1. Jennifer Yarter

    August 25, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    You generalize men as the problem solvers and women as the symphathetic ears, but perhaps that is too broad. By that assumption, two women conversing (or two men) would never have these types of communication issues. Yet, we do, and often. People are infinitely complex and shifting, and that same man in your example, who today is railing against his wife’s need for listening without offering solutions, might very well tomorrow find himself seeking out that symphatic ear himself.

  2. Dominique

    August 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Well first, this being his wife, shouldn’t he know what she wants by now? It’s not a gender thing, some people really are good at listening while others are better at actions. The 2 have their good and bad points.
    The good is that a listener can passively help you figure it out. Just by letting you talk through it. A problem-solver can give you an outside view.
    The bad is that a listener might not give advice when you really do need to hear it whether you want to or not. A problem-solver might be giving you a skewed opinion without all the facts or with their personal bias.
    I honestly do prefer the listening. Not always for sympathy but sometimes just talking something out helps me figure out my own solution (you’ve seen this many times!). Or maybe I just want to get it off my chest, that’s all. Men do that too. Other times, I might ask for advice because I don’t really know.
    I think a good balance is probably the best way to go and taking the time to understand each person and situation as it comes. But people who offer up advice should also acknowledge the fact that justbecause you give the advice doesn’t mean the person has to take it.

  3. TheBlackoutBlog

    August 26, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Well, put! It’s a strategy I try to (and often forget to) put to use.

    Jennifer, you make a very good point as well.

    And no, Dominique. A man can be married to a woman for decades and still make the “WTF is she talking about” face.

  4. Jennifer

    August 27, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    And vice versa. I have been with my husband for a decade, and I still shoot him a WTF face on occasion.


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