Are You a Fixer or a Feeler?


Artwork by David Shrigley.

You know what a “fixer” is. In fact, you might be one yourself. It’s the type of person who’s always trying to help you solve your problems. I have to confess that I’m a serial fixer—but I’m working on breaking the habit to become a better listener.

One of the most useful tools in this process has been, surprisingly, a book called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. As you might imagine, it is written for adults who want to be more successful in talking to their children. Having zero kids, I ended up stumbling on this book via the wonderful David Marquet—former submarine commander, writer, and speaker—who told me: “It’s the best book I’ve ever read on dealing with people.”

The book breaks down a variety of possible ways your “friend” might react when you’re talking to her about a frustrating situation at work, and then explains why almost all of them suck.

Here’s the situation which might sound very familiar:

Imagine that you’re a work. Your employer asks you to do an extra job for him. He wants it to be ready by the end of the day. You mean to take care of it immediately, but because of a series of emergencies that come up you completely forget. Things are so hectic, you barely have time for your own lunch.

As you and a few coworkers are getting ready to go home, your boss comes over to you and asks for the finished piece of work. Quickly, you try to explain how unusually busy you were today.

He interrupts you. In a loud, angry voice he shouts, “I’m not interested in your excuses! What the hell do you think I’m paying you for—to sit around all day on your butt?” As you open your mouth to speak, he says, “Save it,” and walks off to the elevator.

You coworkers pretend not to have heard. You finish gathering your things and leave the office. On the way home you meet a friend. You’re still so upset you find yourself telling him or her what had just taken place.

The friend then tries to “help” you in one of eight different ways:

1. Denial of Feelings: “There’s no reason to be so upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It can’t be as bad as you make it out to be. Come on, smile… You look so nice when you smile.”

2. The Philosophical Response: “Look, life is like that. Things don’t always turn out the way we want. You have to learn to take things in stride. In this world, nothing is perfect.”

3. Advice: “You know what I think you should do? Tomorrow morning go straight into your boss’s office and say, ‘Look, I was wrong.’ Then sit right down and finish that piece of work you neglected today. Don’t get trapped by those little emergencies that come up. And if you’re smart and you want to keep that job of yours, you’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”

4. Questions: “What exactly were those emergencies you had that would cause you to forget a special request from your boss?

“Didn’t you realize he’d be angry if you didn’t get to it immediately?”

“Has this ever happened before?”

“Why didn’t you follow him when he left the room and try to explain again?”

5. Defense of the Other Person: “I can understand your boss’s reaction. He’s probably under terrible pressure. You’re lucky he doesn’t lose his temper more often.”

6. Pity: “Oh, you poor thing. That is terrible! I feel so sorry for you, I could just cry.”

7. Amateur Psychoanalysis: “Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you’re so upset by this is because your employer represents a father figure in your life? As a child you probably worried about displeasing your father, and when your boss scolded you it brought back your early fears of rejection. Isn’t that true?”

8. An Empathic Response: “Boy, that sounds like a rough experience. To be subjected to an attack like that in front of other people, especially after having been under so much pressure, must have been pretty hard to take!”

I’m ashamed to say I’ve definitely been guilty of giving the full range of crappy responses outlined above (!), and it was immensely insightful to have them all articulated so clearly.

The authors, Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, go on to describe how this sort of talk makes people feel and how it cuts off the possibility of allowing them to solve their own problem:

When I’m upset or hurting, the last thing I want to hear is advice, philosophy, psychology, or the other fellow’s point of view. That kind of talk makes me only feel worse than before. Pity leaves me feeling pitiful; questions put me on the defensive; and most infuriating of all is to hear that I have no reason to feel what I’m feeling. My overriding reaction to most of these responses is “Oh, forget it… What’s the point of going on?”

But let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me, and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem.

I might even say to myself, “My boss is usually fair… I suppose I should have taken care of that report immediately…. But I still can’t overlook what he did… Well, I’ll go in early tomorrow and write that report first thing in the morning… but when I bring it to his office I’ll let him know how upsetting it was for me to be spoken to in that way… And I’ll also let him know that, from now on, if he has any criticism I would appreciate being told privately.

I’ve not read it myself yet but I’ve also heard that Faber & Mazlish’s book Siblings Without Rivalry, again about parenting, is an excellent reference for leaders and managers of all kinds.

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Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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