Listening to Others People’s Complaints
The last chapter was about people who bother you. Thinking of these people as reflections of your own ways of thinking or acting is very hard to do. What person wants to face how she is manipulative and self-centered, much like her horrible girlfriend who treated her like crap for a year? It is so much easier to think the other person is the problem or you just have bad luck.
This chapter requires something even harder: facing the things about you that bother other people. The sad news is that doing both of these things is hard. It is so difficult that few people will actually do it. The good news is that if you can master these two skills, your relationships with other people will radically improve, and you will meet better people.
Both of these styles of facing your issues are built on an inter-connected model of relationships. People are not islands all by themselves in their selfish individuality. Earlier, in chapter three, I mentioned O. E. Rolvaag’s novel about Norwegians immigrating to the Dakota territory. In this novel, Giants in the Earth, the husband did not pay attention to his wife’s horrible distress at being in the desolation and isolation of the Dakota prairie, and he suffered tremendously for it. He did not pay attention to her needs, and therefore her complaints (which were expressing her needs) because he was totally centered in his happiness, his wants, and his needs. In cases like his, where one person’s current and another person’s are intimately bound together, it is not because of selfless caring or altruism that someone has to pay attention to someone else’s needs. In such connections, the boundaries between what is good for you and what is good for the other person are severely blurred as your lives are so interconnected. So whether you watch out for the other person out of deep caring for them or out of selfishness is not significant as your separateness does not exist within these intertwined relationships.
You only have intertwined relationships with some people in your lives for some periods of time. It can be a long term relationship with your wife or a short term one with a first date. If you want either relationship to go well and get what you want, you need to pay attention to the needs of the other person and make sure she gets what she wants.
The important thing is that we are not intertwined with everyone. My philosophy emphasizes those people we are intertwined with–our connections– and watching out for them. It is a different view than expressed by some people who say that we are all interconnected with everyone and that what we do impacts other people everywhere. Mitch Albom in his bestseller The Five People You Meet in Heaven emphasizes the interconnectedness of all people. He says, “we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.” Although he is not explicit about it, he advocates caring for all other people as “all lives intersect.”
I think such egolessness is beyond our abilities and not even a good or practical way to be. Thus Buddhism advocates the bodhisattva ethic (championed most by Pema Chodron) of egoless caring for all people. But this means there is nothing that is yours. So boddhisattvas have given away their families, their eyes, and their flesh. They even kill other people so that these people will not get bad karma from future acts of violence these people were going to commit. Buddhism’s bodhisattva ethic makes sense for monks whose goal is total enlightenment, and thus who care nothing about the things and ties of the world. But it makes no sense for people who have special responsibilities and ties in this world.
My connections model is significantly different than the model that says all people are one or all people are interconnected. I am advocating a very practical point that with some people at some times your life currents are bound together, and there is not a hard and fast difference between what is good for them and what is good for you. This is not some cosmic philosophy like Buddhism where you get enlightened by understanding that no separate self exists, and so you are part of the oneness; it is a very grounded, practical view of facing the facts of the interconnectedness of you and that other person.
Saying that “all people are interconnected” makes many people feel they are caring and loving. But this philosophy is so airy and ungrounded in daily reality, it entails no concrete, continual sacrifices. Nor does it incur any responsibilities in someone’s daily life. It is much harder to deal with the actual needs of only the people you are intertwined with. These are the people you have the deepest connection to and so have the deepest problems with. While my connected philosophy is not as spiritual sounding and does not seem as cosmically caring, it requires a lot more: it forces people to continually face their problems with people they are most intimately connected to. In this way, it requires people to continually get out of their ego and selfish desires, and thus is more spiritual than the “all people are interconnected” philosophy.
In the last chapter, the principle idea was that you had the same qualities as people who bothered you. In this chapter, the principle idea is that whatever deeply felt complaints your significant others have about you, they are probably right. When they (assuming they are not criminals or abusive) tell you why the relationship is not going well or when they yell at you about your negative behavior, you should treasure their statements as important guides about how you probably need to change.
I am not saying that the other person is not doing something negative in the relationship; that would be naive. The other person might be contributing to the problem eighty or ninety percent, and you might only be contributing twenty or ten percent. That is not important. You cannot necessarily count on the other person to change. You can only control your behavior, and so the onus is on you to change if you want the relationship to improve.
Some people think this approach is allowing the other person to win. That is a very short term way of looking at the situation. By changing yourself, you are learning and improving, and so you will also avoid problems in other areas of your life. You will be advancing and building a positive energy cycle in your life where positive changes reinforce each other. On the other hand, the other person is not learning and changing. Whatever negative things they are doing to you, they will also be doing to other people and they will then suffer the negative effects of their behavior.
The worldview behind connections does not advocate a selfless caring for all people where you are sad if anyone ever suffers. It does not even advocate caring for your relationships all the time; it advocates caring for the people you are intertwined with at that time. You treat them well and watch out for their needs, but if these people do not want to learn, and they continually treat you poorly in some part of your life, you do not have to selflessly be all concerned when this bad behavior causes them trouble in other parts of their lives. If you are a competitive person, it might even be understandable if you laugh at their troubles when they are not around. So in the long run, your relationships are not somehow winning an argument if you take the basic position that their point of view is right about the things that bother them about you.
Here is an example that illustrates this approach in one person’s life. Mary was a retiree with some modest degree of financial security. But her life had no purpose and not much joy and fun. She had read some of my writings and asked for advice on where she had lost connection with her life’s flow.
When I help people like this, I start with the assumption that she is in some unconscious way contributing to the problem. I know she has some energy openings that help to bring the problem about; the question is: what is the best way to understand these energy openings? I first try to get a sense of what is the best way to approach the problem. From my experience helping people, the two easiest ways of getting a handle on the situation is to look for a clear origin of the problem or see if there were specific relationships that were the problem. After talking with her for a short bit, there was no clear time when her problem started so it did not make sense to wonder about the origin of the problem. Nor were there specific people who were bothering her so we could not see how these people were reflections of herself.
I wondered if she was relating poorly to an important connection in her life or had totally missed this connection, and this was causing her life to be empty and meaningless. I told her that her life would get significantly better if she could figure out who or what this connection was and why she was not relating well to her or it. She quickly said that her life would be filled with much more meaning and joy if she could see her grandchildren significantly more often. The problem was that Mary got along so poorly with her daughter-in-law that she was almost never allowed to see her grandchildren, even though they all lived in the same city.
Mary said there was nothing she could do to change the situation because it wasn’t her problems causing the trouble, but rather the daughter-in-law’s problems. She then started complaining about how troublesome the daughter-in-law was, but I would not let her pass the blame on to someone else. I told her that because her life was affected by the situation, that meant she was partially contributing to bringing about the negative relationship. The daughter-in-law might have problems too, but that was irrelevant from my point of view. Mary was the person who wanted her life to get better and she could make that happen by changing how she contributed to the negative relationship.
I told her that in these types of situations, you needed to listen to the other person’s complaints and see them as pointers on how you need to change. She knew there was something wrong with her life so she was willing to listen to my approach. I then said to list the specific, important complaints her daughter-in-law had about her. After we got the list, we would try to understand the deeper issues behind these complaints and see how they were a manifestation of Mary’s less than perfect ways of relating to other people.
At first Mary couldn’t think of any complaints, but then she remembered a time when her daughter-in-law got mad at her for something Mary considered trivial: giving her daughter-in-law a weight loss book. Mary said she was just trying to help her overweight daughter-in-law, and she meant nothing negative by it. To really deal with this situation, Mary would have to understand how giving the weight loss book was an example of not relating to someone in the best possible way. She would have to see that her poor style of relating was a result of thinking and acting in a poor way, and this way of thinking and acting would manifest itself not just in her relationship with her daughter-in-law but in other relationships too. This meant that if she could make changes in one relationship, she would be changing thoughts and actions that would also affect other areas. Then not only would her relationship with her daughter-in-law get better, many of her other relationships would probably also improve.
I had learnt from experience that the patterns of behavior that caused a problem were typically deeper and multi-faceted the bigger the problem was. I think of each negative pattern of behavior as being like a rope that latches onto a person’s canoe as she flows downstream in her river. One rope or negative pattern was not strong enough to pull her totally out of her current; a single rope would only slow her down a bit. But each added rope or negative pattern of behavior could pull us out of our main current into a lesser channel of the river. If many ropes latched onto our canoe, they could pull us into a swamp or even start pulling us upstream. I told Mary that in such an important relationship that caused such deep sadness in her life, her daughter-in-law probably had at least five major complaints against her and that we should just make a list of them right now. Each complaint would represent one rope that was pulling Mary out of her current.
Mary then said there were some other complaints that her daughter-in-law had about her. One was that when she was babysitting the grandchildren, Mary seemed to turn off the phone so the mother was not able to talk to her children. This seemed to me like the daughter-in-law thought Mary was being controlling and shutting the mother out, but Mary was clueless about how the daughter-in-law felt or why she felt that way. All Mary knew was the daughter-in-law seemed to have groundless complaints against her. In the next ten minutes we came up with four other major complaints the daughter-in-law had against Mary. All of the complaints had the same pattern: Mary was doing something to irritate the daughter-in-law, but Mary thought the daughter-in-law was just blowing up over nothing.
The only complaint I discussed with her was one that made her cry. She admitted that one major complaint that her daughter-in-law and lots of other people had about her was that she was so honest and forthright in expressing her opinion that she hurt their feelings. This made her want to clam up, slink away and crawl under her bed to cry.
I suggested that rather than going to the opposite extreme of not expressing her feelings, wouldn’t it be better if she had the radar or sensitivity to know when she could express her feelings and when doing this would cause a problem? I told her that I loved to express my feelings to others as my feelings just wanted to burst out of me. But over time, I have seen the negative reactions they sometimes get from other people. In teaching my classes it was particularly important to be able to restrain my feelings as some of my students did not like my feelings and opinions. They would then sometimes complain to my bosses, which was an unpleasant situation.
If I focused on my needs, I would express my feelings in class and talk about things I wanted to talk about. This made the class much more fun for me in the short term. But if I focused on the needs of some students to not be subjected to my opinion, I would be much more sensitive to what I could say. This required vigilance on my part and made my job less fun in the short term, but the relationship was better in the long run as my bosses received fewer complaints.
I told Mary that it was no fun to be unable to express her feelings, but as doing this wrecked her relationships, maybe she should change her behavior. I said the key thing to remember was that she wanted to relate to her grandchildren more, and she agreed it was worth changing to be able to do that.
I finished the discussion with Mary by saying that now that we had a list of her daughter-in-law’s major complaints, we would later try to understand the issues behind the complaints. And that she would then spend the next year or so looking for the same tendencies that caused these complaints to come up in other areas of her life. I said she should discuss these complaints with other people close to her as they probably could help her see her negative style of relating. An hour later I got an email from her saying that her daughter liked this idea and had complaints about her relationship style too.
The next day Mary sent an email saying this whole approach had opened up too big of a can of worms for her, and she did not want to deal with these things anymore. She was just going to spend her time traveling with a close friend instead. I was not surprised as few people can face complaints about their behavior and change. I felt sorry for Mary, though, as she could not run away from the patterns of behavior that messed up her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Her ways of thinking and acting were not just confined to one relationship; they would come out in other relationships and other areas of her life too. She could not run away from them as her relationship style was the cause of them.
The basic rule of respecting other people’s complaints about you might be easiest to see in long term relationships, but in shorter term relationships the same principle applies. The problem is that the other person in the relationship might find it easier just to put up with your negative behavior rather than express their irritation in a complaint.
While I was writing these chapters, Michelle went on a first date with someone she had at first found witty and attractive. But on her date, the man took her to a museum he had wanted to go to for awhile, took her to a restaurant where he loved the food, and talked about himself and his interests the whole time. He enjoyed the date and wanted another one, but Michelle got nothing out of the date and did not want another one. She did not tell him what the problem was as it was uncomfortable to share that with him.
Michelle’s date was not able to learn from the experience and get better in relating to other people. That is why you should treasure the complaints other people make about you. They are helping you learn and get better. The real sadness is if they know you are doing something wrong in your relationships, but they do not bother to tell you. Then you suffer from the relationship not going well, but you have no clues to help you better connect with the current of your river.
In chapter fifteen I describe the process by which Michelle found the first good romantic relationship of her life. To do that she had to go through a long difficult process of facing the fact she was like her selfish and manipulative partners. Finally, when she was thirty eight, she found a good man.
The first couple weeks were wonderful, but then he had a complaint about her. He said she was high maintenance as she needed so much attention all the time. Michelle got huffy about that and wondered why he would say that. She did not see herself that way and felt offended. This was the first difficult spot in their relationship.
When she told me about it, I said this was a complaint of his, and she had to take it seriously and look to see if she was like that. She had to learn from the complaints he gave and change if she wanted the relationship to keep going smoothly. She agreed, but she did not think it was something that she did; instead, it was his issue alone.
Michelle was right that other people’s complaints are not always good ones that should be taken seriously. I have been acting as if all complaints your significant relationships make should be taken seriously in order to penetrate people like Mary who just dismiss other people’s complaints. But in reality, the situation is more complicated. Most of the time we should take other people’s complaints seriously, other times we should ignore them.
Here are some guidelines to help you tell which complaints to take seriously and which to ignore.
The first way is if previously other people have also complained about you being this same way, or if other people have said the same thing about you, even if they said it casually. In these cases, you should take the complaint very seriously. Obviously if many of your significant relationships have complained in the same way, the case that you need to change is significantly strengthened. Even more obviously, the case is strengthened if other significant relationships have floundered or died because the other person complained you were like this.
The second way is to ask other people if they think you are like that in your relationships. If they agree, you should take the complaint seriously. The important thing is that you need to ask them in a certain way where you are clearly communicating that you want the real answer. So your words and tone have to convey that you want honesty. It cannot be with the tone of “Do you like my new hair?” where you are fishing for a compliment or reinforcement.
Remember, if your friends or relationships are not honestly forthcoming, it will not be good for you in the long run. No matter how much you may fool yourself or some other people, you will attract more relationships where you have this problem if you really have the problem the person is complaining about.
The third way is to think about what would happen if you listened to the complaint and changed your behavior. Would that make you better in other relationships? Would it help you raise your game and treat other people you were intertwined with better? If so, you should take the complaint very seriously.
In order to make you better, the complaint would have to be something that you could change and something that fit your personality, wants and needs. Basically it would have to fit the larger current of your life.
The fourth way to tell is the opposite. If the other person is making a complaint that you do not have the ability to do and are totally unsuited for and would pull you out of the current of your life, it is a sign you can ignore the complaint as off base.
The fifth way is the tone of the complaint. If the complaint was said in a real biting tone where the other person was trying to tear you down, maybe you can ignore the complaint. On the hand other, if the complaint was said in a sad, calm or caring tone and manner, that would be evidence it was a complaint that you need to take very seriously.
Michelle decided that her new boyfriend was giving a legitimate complaint. She changed and relationship stayed on track. What could have become trouble was easily defused.
It turned out that Michelle had done something very good. Her new partner’s ex wife was demanding and always wanted her way. Michelle’s partner found his ex-wife so difficult to talk to that he eventually stopped communicating with her and withdrew. Michelle, because she had taken his complaint seriously and changed, did not get put into the same mental category as his ex-wife. In fact, she was put into the opposite, positive category of being easy to communicate with. That was a tremendous plus for their relationship.
It is very hard to see other people’s negative behavior as a reflection of yourself. It is also very hard to listen to other people’s complaints about you and change. But if you can work on these two areas, you can gradually eliminate many of your negative qualities. You may not be handsome, or witty, or rich, but you will be the best you can be. This approach is different than saying to your own self be true as that saying often seems to imply you should be authentic or say what you really feel or others should take you as you are. My approach is saying that you cannot remake yourself into someone totally different from what you have been given in life. But you can polish away your rough edges so that you are much better at relating to other people. This is not being true to yourself, but being true or decent to your relationships.
If you can make changes based on these two guidelines, other people will want to be around you as you will be easy to relate to. The good qualities that you possess will shine through because the negative ones have been removed.
After this book is written, I am hoping to get it published. It would be helpful if you tell me any questions you may have or any parts that you have found helpful. If you have sections that you do not understand or you think are stupid or misguided, I would very much appreciate if you tell me. It is much better to hear these comments now, when I can easily change things, then later, after I have published a book. I will reflectively consider your concerns and, if warranted, I will change things to incorporate your concerns into the book. You can email me at email@example.com. Please put “About Connections,” into the subject heading of the email.
This book was written by Joseph Waligore with the help of Michelle Stage. Joseph teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about him can be found at his MySpace profile or his Facebook profile. Michelle works in a bank in St. Paul, Minnesota as a learning consultant and in a Minneapolis night club as a dominatrix.
This website is one of four websites I have. Another one, www.followingtheflow.com is for spiritually oriented people and discusses very similar ideas from a more spiritually oriented perspective. Another one, www.josephwaligore.com is for academically or intellectually oriented people. It has my writings about spiritual philosophies such as Stoicism, Socrates, the Deists, the Enlightenment period, and the rise of modern science. Another one, www.spiritualcritiques.com, has critiques of many popular spiritual teachers and spiritual teachings. It looks at teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Ken Wilber, and Pema Chodron. It also looks at teachings like “All is One,” “The Hundredth Monkey,” and “If it Rings True, it is True.”
There is a Facebook group called Flowing. People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.
Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements. It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his day trading profits.