Listen; Don't Commiserate

I was having a bad day.

One of our kids was home from school (Coronavirus outbreak yaaaay), and he was BORED. What was going to be a nice relaxing day - serene silence and progress on some jobs around the house - had turned into a heavily disrupted day where I felt constantly badgered. Rather than doing the sensible thing, dropping my plans and having some good bonding time, I tried to power through and instead got to the end of the day feeling irritable and frustrated that I’d got nothing done.

My wife had been working all day, and had had her fair share of disruptions from said child. By 6pm, all kids were home, and we were all in various states of tiredness, boredom, and hunger.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t figured out what we’re having for dinner”, I said to my wife, “I’ve had a really difficult disrupted day and it’s left me feeling irritable and unprepared”. She responded, “I’ve had disruptions as well, he’s been through to me in the office a fair bit”.

She meant: “I understand how you’re feeling, it’s really frustrating isn’t it.”

I heard: “I’ve had my own problems, I’m not accepting your excuse for being irritable and unprepared.”

The ensuing conversation was heated and abrupt. I felt attacked and responded defensively. She felt attacked because it absolutely wasn’t what she intended and responded defensively in turn.

“I feel your pain” != “I hear your pain”

you might mean “I feel your pain”, but the wrong wording can project “suck it up, you’re not special”

Now, at this point you might be thinking “Gee, thanks for that unsolicited window into married life Ieuan, but what was your point?” My point is that when you’re feeling down, an attempt to commiserate can instead come across as an invalidation; you might mean “I feel your pain”, but the wrong wording can project “suck it up, you’re not special”, and the critical thing here is that there’s no real way of knowing what the wrong words are - depending on the mood, the circumstance, the context, any attempt to commiserate could be received negatively.

It’s important to consider here why the person is saying this to you. This could be:

  • They need to vent to feel better.
  • They’re feeling low and need to feel like someone cares.
  • They feel bad for not having done something.

In none of these situations does commiseration actively help more than just listening and showing them you’re hearing their problem, in many cases it’s detrimental - in the first two it can feel selfish (making the conversation about you rather than them), in the third it can feel like the invalidation discussed above.

So what should I do?

listen, and acknowledge their pain

The first thing anyone feeling frustrated, angry or low needs to feel is that it’s completely ok to be feeling that way. This is always true - right or wrong, justified or not, you have a right to your emotions. You don’t always have a right to keep feeling that way - you might be in the wrong after all - but controlling that initial gut reaction is hard. The best most consistent way of addressing this is to listen, and acknowledge their pain.

Don’t try and relate it to your own situation.

Don’t try and encourage them to feel differently.

Just let them say their piece, feel what they need to feel, and then judge what they need to hear next.

That could be commiseration, if there’s nothing else to do but let them know they’re not alone. It could be some open questions, to help them get to the bottom of the situation and understand what they can do next. Whatever the next step is, it’s always a good idea to lead with acknowledgement rather than jumping straight into solution territory.

So the next time you feel yourself wanting to say “Me too!” when someone is venting to you, take a step back and remember why they’re saying it before adding your perspective!