26 February 2011

You have a problem. I like to solve problems. Let's play a problem-solving game. On second thought, let's not.

I like solving problems. I can imagine parallel universes in which I'm a plumber or auto mechanic, fixing pipes or cars. But not in this particular point in the space-time continuum. In this reality, the kind of things I like to fix can be broadly described as problems that are caused by people and that affect people. This is not exactly the same as being a "people person." Indeed, I'm far from being the first nonprofit professional to agree with the Peanuts character who said, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand."

What's the difference between trouble-shooting the problems of people, and being a "people person?" Well, it means that when people come to me professionally with their challenges, it's just no fun for me when I realize that what they really want is to engage in a conversational game that will not conclude with a resolution of the presenting problem. Of course, I'm a fool to accept an invitation to play this game, but I am striving to get better at recognizing the opening moves and declining to stay at the table.

Perhaps you're not familiar with this conversational game. I will summarize it, omitting the details in order to protect the privacy of the people who annoy me.
Player 1: I have a problem.

Player 2: I like solving problems. Please tell me about yours, and perhaps I can find a way to fix it.

Player 1: This is my problem.

Player 2: Here's a suggestion.

Player 1: That won't work.

Player 2: Here's another suggestion.

Player 1: That won't work.

Player 2: Here's yet another suggestion.

Player 1: That won't work.

Player 2: Here's still another suggestion.

Player 1: That won't work.

Player 2: How about changing your attitude?

Player 1: That won't work.

Player 2: So you're miserable?

Player 1: Yes.

Player 2: And it's impossible to improve the situation?

Player 1: Yes.

Player 2: Well, I guess everyone needs an interest in life. I congratulate you on finding one.
Now, what fascinates me, in an entirely morbid way, is Player 1's animated facial expression and tone of voice during this exchange. Player 1 is having a wonderful time. Player 1 is getting what he came for. Player 1 is actually winning.

Yes, Player 1 is winning. The cards in this game are very oddly stacked. If the problem can't be resolved, then Player 1 wins, and gets to stay miserable. If the problem can be resolved, then Player 2 wins - but that can't happen unless Player 1 concedes that the resolution is satisfactory, and that's not going to happen. Player 2 is in a game where his ostensible opponent is also the scorekeeper. Player 2 is a fool to agree to play, and a genius to get out of the game before the second round starts. No matter how many rounds they play, one person is going to be "miserable" but triumphant, and one person is going to be deprived of the fun of solving a problem.

Could it be that it's a win-win situation if Player 2 cuts straight to the chase, and immediately congratulates Player 1 on being miserable? Isn't that what Player 1 wanted in the first place, and won't that strategy allow Player 2 to look elsewhere for a more interesting challenge? Somehow, I think not; Player 1's goal is to keep it going as long as possible.

It's obviously an unfair game, but Player 1 usually plays very fairly in one respect: he's not explicitly asking for actionable advice. It's Player 2 who assumes that practical assistance is the goal, which is why I think he is a fool and why I am teaching myself to decline the role. For all I know, Player 1 comes away from this conversation feeling like it has been a refreshing heart-to-heart chat with a soul who truly sympathizes with a blameless victim.


Anonymous said...

hahahaha! This is an awesome - and sadly true - post! Just discovered your blog and am fully enjoying it. Keep it up!

NonprofitCurmudgeon said...

A kind soul has pointed out that sometimes there are gender differences operating in these conversations, such that women are seeking empathy while men are seeking solutions.

I doubt it. I think that my interlocutors can be divided into a very small majority of people with dependent personality disorders, and a larger majority with other kinds of mental/emotional disorders.

By the way, I have invented a meta-game for myself. A perfect score is three. If I can identify the Problem-Solving Conversational Game is in progress within two rounds, I give myself one point. If I can shut it down within three rounds, I give myself two points. If I can shut down within three rounds without offending Player 1, I give myself three points. I haven't managed a perfect score yet, but if I do, I'll deserve to have Carl Kasell's voice on my answering machine.

Gurukarm said...

Excellent, and oh-so-true. And, not just in the non-profit world, either.

Here's to your success in winning Carl Kasell's voice! ;-)

(PS - found you through Deborah Finn, nptech extraordinaire!)

Anonymous said...

Are these misery-loving whiners employees of the organization, or clients of the organization? If they're on staff, I have to wonder if anyone is measuring how effective they are in advocating for the people that organization is supposed to serve?

Anonymous said...

I think this cartoon is relevant:


"What if I just want to complain?"

"Talk to someone else."