Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Attention-Seeking Cycle

Two things you've heard me waffle on about lately, one way and another, are the pitfalls of advice (both giving and receiving it) and the difficulties we humans have communicating, despite sharing a complex language. Both of these play a role in the phenomenon I'm about to discuss.

When somebody asks for advice, and then ignores it, repeatedly, how do we respond to this situation?

There are several things at play here.

The first problem is that we are not really sure of their motives.

I share a personality quirk that is usually a criticism women make about men. That I rush to try and problem-solve when a problem is presented to me. I even know why. I don't "do" spare time - leisure - in a big way. I'm a workaholic, albeit my definition of work being quite broad. That's a separate matter and not relevant here, but in what little leisure time I take, that I define as strictly leisure time, I like PUZZLES. Crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and "real life" puzzles. I'd sooner read or watch a detective story than any other genre. Even if I'm tired. Most of all, I like SOLVING puzzles. Humans are puzzles. Human with problems are better puzzles.

Unfortunately, humans with problems don't always seek a solution. What they seek first (or at all) is sympathy. I've even tried putting a sticky note on my computer screen that says "SYMPATHIZE FIRST, solve later". I still forget. Those closest to me know me well enough to put up with my problem-solving and crass lack of sympathy, but it's a pretty sorry state when I'm having to be taught by my Aspie son. He learned to do it, and if he can then surely anyone can, and he shakes his head at me when I get it wrong again. And again. Every time. (I think I'm getting better at it. A bit.)

Therefore, we must bear in mind that there can be an element of misunderstanding involved when a person appears to be seeking advice, but is really seeking sympathy.

However, I'm not the only person who experiences this. Many of those who have talked with me about it are very good with the sympathy first, and some are even almost exclusively sympathetic people, leaving advice mostly for others.

The second problem is that having given the advice requested, we may wrongly assume it was heard. And I don't mean heard as in sound arriving at its destination. I mean heard as in absorbed into the thinking parts of the recipient's brain. We have all had conversations after which we say "I don't think he heard me at all".

In many ways this falls under the heading of "when the student is ready, the teacher appears". Students who are not ready still sometimes seek out teachers.

The third problem is that sometimes people who appear to be asking YOU for advice are really only thinking out loud. They are asking themselves for advice, and while they may be trawling ideas from all and sundry, they were never going to take anyone else's ideas seriously. The fact that they are solving their own problems is great, the way they do it just confuses the hell out of the rest of us. But we are social creatures. Using friends as a sounding board, even if you are really talking to the sky, is OK. It's the repetition of it that wears us down.

And let's face it,  sometimes people just talk rubbish. They really just flap their gums. Maybe they don't get much chance to talk to other people. Maybe they are just naturally chatty. And maybe this sometimes takes the form of sounding like asking advice when in fact it never was anything of the sort.

Now like I said, I'm an analytical person. I analyze everything and then I analyze why I analyze. I think it's far better than either worrying or not giving a shit. Analyzing leads to useful, positive action, and can solve a lot of problems, which worrying and apathy don't.

But it's a waste of my analysis if the person who comes to me for advice, over and over again, completely ignores what I say. So I tire of it. Regardless of their motives or intent, or any hidden agendas, my patience wears out. I find myself ignoring them, posting smiley faces instead of suggestions, making light of it...ANYTHING in fact to avoid coming right out and saying "For fuck's sake, I've told you twenty times already, either pay attention or shut up." Because that's not nice. I aim to be nicer than that. And assuming the person isn't a Psychic Vampire in which case ignoring them is the correct thing to do, there has to be a better way, doesn't there?

Tom, who is a genius, came up with a suggestion. "Tell them you don't know". Now, why didn't I think of that.

By saying "I don't know", you appear to completely contradict yourself, because previously you've offered solid solutions (hopefully).

If they really weren't paying attention/were not seeking a solution in the first place, this won't really mean anything much. If they think to themselves "hang on, she had a solution last time!" it may jolt them into realization. But whatever the result, it saves you a lot of effort which would have gone to waste. It may end the conversation, it may disappoint them, it may even (with any luck) strike you off their list of go-to people. You can still be sympathetic, but it shouldn't take so long.

I hereby announce, therefore, that in future, this will be my tactic. If you notice I am smiling and saying "there, there" a lot, which seems very out of character, you know why. This will of course be far more amusing for observers than for recipients. I think most of you reading this are observers. Try it yourself too, let me know how you get on.

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