Complainers & Critics: How to Help Them Help You (aka, “Plugging the Hole in the Bucket”)


Some people seem to be natural “problem finders.”  They are tuned-in to the issues and inconsistencies, the errors and omissions, the potential snags.  When they handle themselves well, they become an important resource for those those of us who live and work with them.  However, sometimes we need to help them help us.

“Don’t just come with complaints… also come with proposed solutions.”  This is sound advice, and the challenge of course, is (a) to put that advice into practice, and (b) to put it into practice without cutting off potentially valuable input; we don’t want to lose or be blind to a critical perspective just because the critic doesn’t (yet) have a solution in mind.

The idea of asking for solutions and not just complaints is, to me, not so much an across-the-board rule as much as it is a guiding attitude… an attitude that is especially important on the part of the party issuing the complaint. When someone comes to us with a problem, even if they’re not holding the answer in their hands, we’d like them to come with an attitude that they’d like to find an answer and, maybe, just maybe, they’ve got a few options on where to look.

Negative Norbert and his cousin, Helpless Henry

Alas, sometimes we’re simply deadling with a chronic complainer/naysayer, aka a “Debbie Downer” or “Negative Nancy.” (how about “Critical Connie?” …but then, why only female names? ..and what is up with “Lazy Susan,” anyway? Considering that Susan’s husband, Larry, never lifted a finger around the house, why did we spare him that particular alliterative moniker? Of course, that leisure suit sure did fit him nicely…) Rather than giving us any indication that they’d like to work with us to help improve things, they simply want to make us aware of all their perceived problems and sources of blame. In such situations, I am fond of quoting the old children’s song…

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.
Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, fix it.
With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, with what?
With straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
With straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, with straw.
The straw is too long, dear Liza, dear Liza,
The straw is too long, dear Liza, too long,
Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, cut it.
With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, dear Liza?

..and so on, until the song loops around and repeats, as Liza advises Henry to fetch the needed water (for wetting the stone (for sharpening the knife (for cutting the straw))) using a bucket… but… AHA!…. it turns out there’s a hole in the bucket!!    (Henry smiles, victorious.) 

What Henry and Liza are doing is playing a game, a game that became a foundational example with a theory of interpersonal relationships called Transactional Analysis (“TA”), created in the 1950s by Eric Berne, a Montreal-born psychiatrist, author, genius and three-time divorcee.   Berne noticed how patients, when visiting a therapist, would often play the “there’s a hole in the bucket” routine — he dubbed it  “Why Don’t You / Yes But…” game.

In this game, the instigator (Henry or the “White” player in TA-speak) will approach another party (Liza or the “Black” player in TA-speak) with a complaint. The Black player will then offer help/advice/consolation, only to have the White player dismiss said help/advice/consolation, by pointing out some unsatisfied aspect of the problem. Hilarity ensues as the cycle repeats itself over and over again.  The White player “wins” the game when the Black player gets stumped/frustrated and gives up, thereby validating the White player’s pre-existing narrative about the state of the world and/or their relationship with the Black player. Sometimes, the game is played in order to validate the Black player’s own narrative, too.

We may want to offer Henry some sympathy — after all, there IS a hole in the bucket.  How much sympathy — or even just empathy — to offer him?  It’s a balance, and we run afoul of this one all the time, in either direction: We either give Henry too little empathy and that makes us appear dismissive or uncaring, or we give Henry too much empathy and that causes us to wallow together with him in his energy-sucking bog, making the hole in the bucket appear bigger and more important than it needs to be… either way, we’re adding to Henry’s self-concept of victimhood.  That’s why we try to offer solutions. That’s why we play the “Why Don’t You / Yes But” game.

But we know the game doesn’t work.  Henry is a chronic complainer, relentless in his focus on problems and reliant on Liza to provide solutions… and nothing is getting done.

By playing the game, we are encouraging Henry’s learned helplessness if we don’t encourage Henry (and ourselves) to approach situations looking for solutions to problems, rather than always giving excuses/complaints as to why solutions might not work.

We don’t help Henry if we let him complain non-stop… and we certainly don’t help him if we’re always answering his questions.

We need to turn the conversation around by asking Henry questions, so he contribute to finding a solution.

At any point in the song, Liza could break the cycle with something like this:

Then solve it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then solve it, dear Henry, dear Henry, solve it.
But how shall I solve it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
But how shall I solve it, dear Liza, but how?
What do you think, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry?
What do you think, dear Henry, dear Henry, what do you think?

True, once the conversation is turned around, Henry’s initial answer may be “I don’t know.”  Depending on how deep his learned helplessness runs, Henry may resist taking responsibility for finding a solution, e.g. finding alternative buckets, knifes, stones, etc. to work with.

So what?  What do you think Liza should do?

How hard should Liza resist the temptation for an “easy fix” of giving answers to Henry?

How can Liza gauge her own ability as a coach and her skill at asking effective qusestions?

If the goal of Liza’s “up front investment” is to allow Henry to develop his own problem solving capacity, how will Liza measure progress?

If progress still can’t be made despite sincere effort, perhaps Liza should consider terminating the relationship with Henry and find another person to manage the bucket supply chain with.

What other options does Liza have?

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 8, 2012, in Business, Coaching, Communication Skills, Learning, Life, Management, Positivity and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Liza always has the option of destroying the bucket. If there is no bucket, there is no hole.

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