Other People’s Squabbles
A little while back, I violated three of my own friendship rules.
I was friends (and still am, I hope) with Edie, a woman who was often at odds with her adult daughter, Fran.
We’d meet quite often for lunch, or shopping, or Yoga, or just coffee, and she’d give me her ‘upset smile.’ (We all know what that is – we all have an upset smile, and we all know what everyone else’s looks like.) I’d know she had argued with her daughter again.
Edie was distraught at least once a week by Fran’s behavior.
When Fran graduated from college, she moved to the Midwest, and so the biggest issues revolved around visiting. Fran was not coming to visit. Or she did come to visit but spent most of the day with her girlfriends, so it didn’t count. Or Fran spent too much time with her father (Edie’s ex), and Edie’s feelings were hurt. Or Edie flew out to see Fran, but Fran had an emergency at work and couldn’t take the day off, or Fran invited Edie, but asked her to stay in a hotel.
And there were arguments. In person, by phone, by text. Edie’s house was too dated. Fran’s apartment was not tidy. They couldn’t agree on a restaurant. Edie was too critical. Fran was too critical. Each thought the other was a bad driver, a bad dresser, a bad example.
I listened to all of it. But I didn’t just listen.
And that is why I violated three of my interpersonal rules.
First: Rule Number One: Always remember that there are many different kinds of families.
I never for one minute doubted that Edie and Fran loved each other. But not all relationships are sweet and supportive. I know more than one family whose love is intense – usually of the shouting variety. Some mother/daughter love is based on mutual dependence. Some are formal – like a throwback to Queen Victoria. Some are best friends. And some are combative.
But it’s still love.
That was my first mistake. That I thought Edie’s relationship with her daughter should be different.
Which leads me to Rule Number Two: Don’t take sides in other people’s squabbles.
When I was a kid, my mother had a pact with all the other neighborhood mothers. They agreed never to interfere in the kids’ squabbles. As my mother put it, “You kids will fight and make up in half an hour. But us mothers – if we get involved, we may end up enemies forever.”
But I wanted to fix Edie and Fran.
At first, I tried presenting Fran’s side, since she was not there to defend herself from Edie’s complaints. I reasoned that maybe the stress from Fran’s job spilled over into her personal relationships, and she was just exhausted. But my rationalizing Fran’s behavior made Edie feel like her own friend (me) was not on her side. She even wondered aloud whether Fran had contacted me to gang up on her mother.
So then I took the other side. I told Edie that she had every right to be upset, that her daughter should be more respectful, more flexible. But then Edie felt compelled to defend the daughter she loved so much, and was angry at me for criticizing her beloved baby. That strategy worked better, because then Edie felt more forgiving towards her daughter. But the downside was that she was mad at me.
Which is why Rule Number Two is so important.
I wanted to fix Edie and Fran. But they didn’t need fixing. They always made up, but my friendship with Edie suffered.
Which leads me to Rule Number Three: Listen.
This one did not come from Mom. This was something I learned gradually (and rather surprisingly) during my career.
When I became a manager, I had to deal not only with my subordinates’ performance, but with their personalities, attitudes, and issues.
When my staff was at its largest (about 35), it wasn’t unusual to have at least one person a day come to me upset about something.
I was working at a break-neck pace myself, and seeing another distraught face emerge in my doorway often put my own deadlines in peril.
But over time, I stumbled on an amazingly successful response.
I would say to the aggrieved employee, “I’m swamped, as usual, but I can give you five minutes right now if all you need is to vent, or I can schedule you for an hour later in the week to have a deeper discussion.”
And incredibly, almost every single time, the employee would opt for the five-minute gripe session.
Rule Number Three: Most people do not need or want you to solve their problems. They want you to LISTEN.
And that is my biggest mistake with Edie. I didn’t need to fix anything. I didn’t need to take sides. I didn’t need to give her advice.
All I had to do was listen.
And she would feel better.
And in these times of turmoil and worry, if I am ever lucky enough to have coffee with Edie again, and she complains about Fran, I will say,
“I can see it’s making you sad. I’m so sorry.”
And I hope she will feel better.
- Posted in: Humor