Confession: I dreaded answering her calls. I adore her, she’s the best friend a person could ask for, but she can complain like nobody else. These moments of frustration took place during a very predictable 5 pm phone call on her commute home from work. The phone would ring, I’d take a deep breath, and cheerfully answer the phone with a, “How’s was work?” while she would waste no time jumping right in with, “You wouldn’t believe my &*#$%@ day……..” .It was predictable. It was frustrating. And I realised it was my fault.
There were quite a few things I was doing to make it more likely that she WOULD complain, the first being to ask her how work was, and the second more egregious mistake was to sympathise and agree with all of it. I had become a reinforcing sounding board for her list of numerous irritations throughout the day (some of which, if I’m being honest, were not worth the blood pressure rise they were causing her as she re-told all of the stories).
So, I thought through all of the antecedents and consequences I could, and came up with a list of ideas, and picked a few that were reasonable to try:
1. Ignore all of her calls (maybe not).
2. Don’t answer the 5:00 call. Maybe being so close to work had an impact on her choice of discussion, and calling her back later may yield a different conversation.
3. Tell her to suck it up (perhaps not such a great idea).
4. Don’t ask about work. Ask about the kids, the dog, her weekend plans, a new song on the radio, anything but work.
5. Don’t reinforce the complaining. Offer advice if necessary/reasonable, otherwise try to change the topic immediately.
6. Top each of her complaints with an even more horrendous story of my own (tempting but probably not helpful).
So, the inevitable 5:00 call came, and I let it ring. I phoned her back 20 minutes later (idea 2), and asked how the commute was (idea 4). This didn’t yield anything remotely happy to talk about (probably a terrible question, honestly), so I quickly asked about her weekend plans (idea 5), which set us off on a much more reinforcing conversation about dinners and a craft fair. I can happily say that a subtle shift in my own behaviour has made me look forward to her calls again, and I’ve even started answering the 5:00 ones again with much better results.