A friend has a problem at work and it is clearly upsetting them. They ask you for your advice.

You empathize and then suggest an approach. They tell you it wouldn’t work.

You suggest another approach. They tell you that wouldn’t work either.

Nothing you can come up with seems to have any impact and they continue to complain about how unlucky they are to have so many insoluble problems.

Sound familiar?

A common problem.

Periodically you will meet someone who complains about an issue but then doesn’t seem to want to actually do anything about it. This behaviour confuses many people. If the problem is that bad, surely the person would want to do something about it?!?

In people’s minds, this kind of fatalistic “There is nothing I can do about it” rhetoric is usually associated with a feeling of no understanding (or control) of the situation but in many cases the opposite is true.

Let me tell you what I think is happening for at least some of these people. The main problem is that they feel that they have a little bit more understanding of the situation than those around them. This might sound counter-intuitive but bear with me.

This feeling of extra understanding causes several problems:

The first problem it causes is they become almost completely unpersuadable. They feel that they understand more than you so why should they listen to you? Their arguing style becomes one of defending their point of view rather than exploring other possibilities. They say “That wouldn’t work” rather than asking “How would that work?”

The knowledge that they are right and that the rest of the people are wrong leads us to the second problem. Because they feel that they did the right thing, they don’t think that they contributed to the problem in any way themselves. This leads them to look for external causes for the problems. Instead of asking “How did I affect the problem?” they ask “Who else caused this problem – because it certainly wasn’t me?” They blame others rather than looking to see how they could have contributed to the problem.

How is this demoralising? Wouldn’t having a greater understanding than those around you be motivating? Knowing that you were better than them? Well, it is to start with but repeated experience teaches them something else . . .

Lost car keys.
Imagine that you had lost your car keys. You can’t find them but you knew for sure that the keys hadn’t fallen between the cushions on the sofa. You would look everywhere but the sofa. If they had fallen between the sofa cushions, you would look everywhere else and never find them. You would complain to your friends that you had looked and looked and looked. You’d get demotivated, fatalistic and probably a bit angry: “I am never going to find them.” You might even get some jealousy here too: “Why is it that other people can find there keys and I can’t?”

With the lost keys the solution is pretty easy: someone who thinks the keys might be in the sofa looks there and finds them. However, interpersonal problems are rarely that simple. “Have you tried letting them know how you feel” from someone else will elicit a response like “That won’t make any difference”. This is the equivalent to a “There is no point in looking in the sofa because I know the keys are not there” in the key hunt. There is no way to prove the value of the advice. The person with the problem has to try it for themselves.

And you cannot persuade them of the value of this advice because the first problem was . . . . . . that they are unpersuadable! They simply tell you “That wouldn’t work”.

Looking in the wrong place.
Never looking at their own part in interpersonal problems will quickly teach someone like this that these sorts of problems are largely unsolvable. They say thing like “Yes but people don’t change.” – You are left on the receiving end of the “That wouldn’t work” speech.

If interpersonal problems were just the fault of one side or the other then only looking to others for the solution would mean (on average) that they would be sorted out half the time. However, interpersonal problems are rarely that clear cut. Both sides usually contribute a bit. This means that it is not just half the time that the problems continue. It is most of the time. Together this makes a powerful set of experiences for them to learn that these sort of problems are largely unsolvable.

Most people who feel that they have more understanding than those around them are very resistant to changing this view. After all, it makes them feel special and that is a really nice feeling to have. The problem is it also usually makes them feel demotivated and fatalistic too.

The lessons:
There are 2 things to take from this. The first is that if you are on the receiving end of the repeated “That wouldn’t work” speech then don’t take it personally. It is not about the quality of your advice or suggestions; it is about their inability to accept that they make mistakes and take responsibility for those mistakes.

The second thing to realise is that accepting that something is your fault (when it is) is often difficult on your ego but there is a big consolation prize. After the hurt ego comes the realisation that you KNOW you can do something about the problem. This is real empowerment.