Do you want sympathy or solutions?

My department chairman is a great guy who tries to fix all of the problems I bring to him, which sometimes annoys me.

I know that sounds strange. Why would anyone not want their boss to fix their problems?

I bet you assume that your staffers want you to fix problems they present you, too. But sometimes we don’t want someone to solve our problems; we just want someone to sympathize.

This “troubles talk” is more common for women than men, although both sexes do it, according to Deborah Tannen, author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of of Women’s Friendships.

Some people introduce a problem as a method of creating a conversation, not seeking a solution. These people want to bond over a common issue, Tannen wrote.

If you just try to fix the problem, you are robbing the person of that bonding experience, which may make them feel alienated from you, Tannen wrote.

How do you know if your staffer wants a solution or a conversation?

Perhaps the best way to determine motive is just to ask. The question “Are you asking me to solve your problem or sympathize with you?” can help you know what the staffer expects. However, be sure to ask the question with a sincere tone, not one that makes the staffer feel belittled if they just wants to talk things out.

Sometimes the staffer may want conversation and a solution. They may want to talk out an issue and come to a solution. It’s also possible that the staffer knows what to do, but just wants to discuss the issue with you to have their thoughts confirmed.

Regardless of what the staffer is seeking from the conversation, clarifying their intentions before the chat starts will help you both feel more fulfilled by the exchange, resulting in a more positive working relationship.

profKRGDr. Kenna Griffin is an assistant professor of mass communications and director of student publications at Oklahoma City University. She is the author of the Prof KRG blog, which serves as a practical resource for student journalists. She is a journalist, reader, shoe lover, wife, mother of two, and the spoiler of a couple of adorable dogs.