Dad Skills 101: How to Commiserate

men are from mars - women are from venus - john gray - book coverIt might mark me as old school, but I don’t think us guys are particularly good at commiserating when we hear someone who’s having a hard time. And if it’s one of our kids, we’ll go right into protective mode and leap head-first into trying to solve problems, even to the point of cutting them off to share our ideas. The book’s not as popular as it once was, but I actually found John Gray’s best-selling “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” to be really helpful in understanding the fundamental gender difference between how we dads approach tough interpersonal situations versus moms.

In the book, Gray explains that women tend to be good listeners able to commiserate and share the challenges of daily life, while us men are typically more wired to tackle problems and fix everything. This isn’t entirely true across the board, of course (is anything when it comes to gender roles?) but I know that I definitely fall into what I call the “Mr. Fixit” role way too often with my friends and family.

Here’s how it should work: You come to me with some complaints or just needing to vent about a tough day or miserable experience. I commiserate. I don’t offer any solutions but at some point ask “wanna hear some of my ideas about how to fix this?” and if you say yes, then BOOM! I’m in full fixit mode, running flat out and offering up ideas as fast as my neurons can fire. But a “no, thanks” is okay too and I take a deep breath, the voice in my head says “damn, you’re missing out on some absolutely GENIUS level solutions” and I keep listening and nodding my head sympathetically.

high school volleyball - club volleyball - school gym

Now, Dad, can you do this with your spouse or kids? Or anyone? How about at work?

Last night I had another chance to practice my own commiseration skills with my daughter when I picked her up from volleyball practice. She’s in club volleyball, so twice a week they do drills, practice and strength training. And it works: She’s markedly better in the last half year and her entire team is doing much better than they were at the beginning of the season. Still, practices are tough and one of her coaches, um, makes up with enthusiasm and drive what she perhaps lacks in empathy. Suffice to say, it’s pretty common for me to pick up my daughter and listen to her venting about what happened for 10-15 minutes.

And so I’ve learned as I’m heading to the gym where they practice to keep reminding myself of the magic commiseration phrases: “sounds tough”, “that must have been hard” and “I’d be upset too”. Just having those phrases on the tip of my tongue while she’s telling me how it went can make a world of difference in her ability to process her own experience and find her own emotional equilibrium point.

That’s exactly how it went last night too. She had arrived late (due primarily to her own poor planning on when we left the house to get to practice, but that’s another story 🙂 ) as, apparently, did the majority of the team. Coach wasn’t pleased and they all went back and forth about what had transpired, with tension. So K- got into the car pretty upset about it all. Here’s the thing: The coach was right, and I couldn’t help slipping into fixit mode just a bit when I finally said “ya know, next time why don’t you try just saying “I planned poorly, I’m sorry I’m late, it won’t happen again.” and skip the excuses?” This was after about ten minutes of her going down the list of frustrations and me saying – you guessed it – “sounds tough” and “that must have been difficult”, etc.

Unsurprisingly, she shut down as soon as I made a comment about what she could have said in response to the Coach’s question and was done talking about practice for a few minutes. The thing of it is that’s actually quite a common experience for us fixit guys and folk (particularly female folk in my experience) who want someone to commiserate, not repair things, or tell them what they might have done differently. Turns out that this “Venus” thing is hard to master, y’all. Now, again, guys, how are you with your own commiseration and empathy skills? Can you shut up and just listen? And how does that go for you?

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