Converting Drains into Radiators
My friend Monica Funnell introduced me to the classification of people into radiators and drains in a recent conversation about how directors can build effective teams. It is one of those wonderfully self-explanatory concepts that sheds immediate light onto aspects of interpersonal relationships in real life. And, as these things are apt to do, it helped me identify what’s been going on in situation that has been a source of low-grade anxiety in my own life.
But the thing about these personality labels is that they’re more useful in some situations than others. If you are putting together a group of people to work together, yes it’s very useful. If you are going in for a spot of introspection, it could potentially be useful, depending on how self-aware you are. (One of my niggling questions is whether drains know they are draining; I’m reasonably sure the person I’ve been worried about thinks they are a radiator. This in turn fills me with self-doubt: does everybody else see me as needy and whining without my realising it?)
If you are not in a position to sack the drain from your life, then simply recognising the dynamic doesn’t get you very far. It just brings your dissatisfaction with the relationship into focus without necessarily helping you change it. Indeed, calling these labels personality traits suggests that they are somehow fixed and inherent, that you are born one or the other and destined to go through life either contributing to or detracting from your social worlds.
Now, I don’t really like to think we’re stuck with drains being drains forever. Not just because that would be depressing, but also because I have known people who have been transformed from energy-sapping gloom-mongers into cheerful encouragers when they have extricated themselves from difficult or stressful life situations. It is more useful, that is, to think of these as forms of behaviour than personality types, and as such, it may be possible to change them.
The big question is, how? If you google ‘radiator or drain’ you get lots of short pop-psychology articles describing the distinction. If you google ‘how to turn a drain into a radiator’ you get lots of DIY sites offering advice on plumbing. We’re going to have to figure this out for ourselves.
There are two main types of drainy behaviour, and they seem to me to need different responses.
- Negative behaviours: statements and body language that express reluctance, criticism, non-cooperation, resentment, martyrdom or obstructiveness. It is not merely that they lack cheerfulness, these are behaviours that thwart other people in their endeavours.
The strategy I intend to use to deal with this is systematic bright-siding. I’m generally quite good at taking a positive view on things as a matter of habit, not least because in Magenta we have consciously developed feedback protocols that frame everything in positive terms. So I get a fair amount of practice at the kind of positive approach that mitigates what you might call passive negativity - doubt, underconfidence, uncertainty - those situations where people don’t feel up to being positive themselves, but aren’t trying to bring anyone else down.
But mere encouragement doesn’t always stand up to the more active negative behaviours such as criticism or sulking. These seem to need a more pro-actively positive response, and starting with the words, ‘On the bright side...’ means that whatever I find to finish the sentence with will lift the emotional tone of the exchange.
My goal here is twofold. In the short term, to find a response method that protects my emotional state in the moment of being on the receiving end of negative behaviours. In the longer term, to inveigle the drains into cheering up and enjoying themselves a bit more.
- Needy behaviours: disproportionately making demands on others relative to what they offer back. These demands may be for practical help or for attention,
and the problem is not that they’re being made (everyone gets by with a little help from their friends), it’s the sheer quantity of them. You feel drained because you find you’re spending a lot more time and attention on their needs than the nature of the relationship would warrant. The demands go beyond the ordinary everyday give-and-take of social and professional interaction to try and make it your job to compensate for their lack of flexibility or self-reliance.
When I was teaching in higher education, I developed a clear set of signals: when my office door is open, you can come in and be needy at me, but when it is closed I’m not available to be interrupted. I would publish certain times as official ‘office hours’, but would happily leave the door open at other times if I was doing something that wouldn’t suffer from an interruption.
This meant that I was feeling disposed to be helpful when people turned up, but more importantly, it made people manage their own needs. They’d come in having planned what they wanted to talk about, and the delay meant that things they would have got on and worked out for themselves anything they didn’t actually need me for.
Of course, I still got ‘help me now’ emails at any and all hours, but I could just reply, ‘Come and see me during office hours’. Looking back, it was the institutional context that facilitated what became very healthy relationships. The principle that you are entitled to help, but not to on-demand feeding framed interactions in the classroom too. ‘Hold that question; we’ll come to back to that in a bit,’ was happily accepted as a way to manage the needs of the group as a whole.
So, it looks like what I need to manage drainingly needy behaviours in non-institutional contexts is a means to mitigate the impulsiveness of the demands. I need to find ways to deflect, ‘Give me your attention now!’ interruptions, while still actually being helpful in the wider sense. Because I do like being helpful (did you see the name of my website?), but I don’t like emails asking me questions that anyone with access to google could answer for themselves.
I haven’t got as far as concrete tactics for doing this yet, but this post is getting long enough as it is, and knowing the kind of thing I’m looking for is a good start.
Of course, well-ingrained forms of behaviour may be hard to shift, and if people’s negativity or neediness is driven by stressors in fundamental parts of their lives (jobs, family situations, health issues, financial difficulties), simply changing our behaviour as we interact with them isn’t going to cure that. But it may mitigate it, and finding ways that stop enabling draining behaviour and instead encourage more cheerfulness, generosity and self-reliance (indeed, radiator-like behaviour) will at the very least make our dealings with them pleasanter for all concerned while they cope with the big stuff.