Situation #1. Jenn’s husband Jake asks her how her day was. “Well,” says Jenn, putting her hand to the back of her neck, “when I woke up I think I must of have been sleeping wrong – I had this creak in the my neck. And I had this weird dream last night about Sally from work, I’ve never dreamed of her before – I don’t know where that came from. And then I was going to wear my black pants but I couldn’t find them; I can’t believe that I put them in the wash already... Anyhow, then Janet called and said that she was running late and won’t be able to make meeting, and then I ….”
We’re 5 minutes into the conversation and we haven’t hit breakfast yet.
Situation #2. Terese’s boyfriend Tom, picks her up from work at the hospital. “Oh, you wouldn’t believe, says Terese. “My supervisor gave me 3 more patients than the other nurses. I was running ragged all night long. I couldn’t keep up, I’m exhausted…”
“She always does this to you,” interrupts Tom. “I told you, you need to talk to her about this. I don’t understand why you don’t speak up,” says Tom shaking his head in exasperation.
Both of these conversations are going south fast. Like a lot of guys, as soon as Jenn starts talking, Jake instinctively starts mentally trolling for problems that he can help fix. But this is a tough one for him – is it about her neck? Sally? The thing with the pants? He can’t tell, she’s moving too fast and Jake is quickly getting oversaturated with all the details of Jenn’s story. In a few more minutes he will begin to glaze over and shut down. This, in turn will frustrate Jenn who will feel that Jake isn’t listening and tuning her out.
Terese and Tom are following a similar pattern. Tom is in better shape than Jake. He’s able to zero in quickly on what sounds like a recurring rant from Terese which Tom has done his best to put to rest a few times. He’s getting frustrated because despite his noble efforts to fix Terese’s problem, she never follows through on this sage advice. In his mind she just continues to complain. In hers, he is always butting in, interrupting, not letting her finish her story, giving her advice she never asked for.
Ah, the differences between men and women. There have been decades of research on male and female communication styles, yet I’m always surprised in my work with couples that much of this hasn’t trickled down to everyday life (Don’t they teach this stuff in school health ed?). Let’s try it one more time. Here are basics of what we know about talking:
Women talk to connect. Go to any elementary school playground at recess and just watch. You’ll see the boys in small packs jockeying for dominance in some rough and ready game. The girls are usually off in pairs, maybe rolling a ball between them but essentially talking...and connecting.
Tell me about your day is way to connect after a long day apart. Jenn and Terese are both welcoming this opportunity to touch base. But it is quickly dissolving as Jake and Tom go on man mode.
Note to man: Relax. Let her talk. Connect. Nod your head. Grunt appropriately to let her know you are listening (staring silently looks like you are tuned out). Better yet say back what you think she was feeling – “That must have been frustrating; I bet you felt overwhelmed.”
Women solve problems by talking them through. Basically women think aloud, walking through the details of situations. By Jenn talking about her day or Terese about hers, they are in the present emotionally and intellectually working through it – figuring what was important or not, not only relieving stress by venting but also sizing up problems and figuring out solutions as they talk.
Note to man: As one comic said, “My wife tell me about her day is real time,” usually to the frustration of the man. But she’s working. No need to jump in and be the white knight. Cool your jets, let her work this out. Again acknowledge her feelings. Ask details – “So how did you manage all those patients?” to clarify or advance the story, not to nail the solution.
Men are not necessarily controlling, they are wired to solve problems. Most men are actually pretty good at sensing trouble and distress in their partners (chalk it up to evolution and protection), and many men actually feel anxious when their partners seem to be struggling in some way. The guy way seems to be to “git er done.” Part of their jumping in to help is because they care; part is spurred on by the anxiety they feel when they sense distress: If I can get you to feel better, the thinking goes (by putting the problem to rest), I’ll feel better too.
Note to woman: Help him out by composing your conversation like a newspaper article: State the headline – Good day, no problems, I just need to talk, or Actually I wondering if you could help me figure out…; give a quick summary paragraph of the day – busy, lot of distractions, or busy, annoyed at my supervisor; then once you covered the major highlights, and your partner knows whether or not he is on duty, feel free to backtrack and fill in the details and backstory.
By breaking it down like this the guy knows what to track (or not) which helps prevent him from getting too flooded with info or exhausted from trying to nail the problem. Giving him the headline helps him relax and just listen.
Men tend to do the man-cave thing. Jake isn’t happy at his job and for months he’s been silently mulling in his head about making a change. Finally, one Saturday morning over coffee he says to Jenn, “Well, Honey, we’re moving to Paris.”
The problem here is that Jenn (rightfully) feels left out of the entire process. Women again connect and feel connected by knowing what thoughts are percolating in their guys’ minds. Ideally Jake would start talking about his job the moment he starts to feel disgruntled and keep it up as his thoughts evolve. Guys, instead, are tempted to deliver only the punchlines.
Note to man: No, you probably don’t need to the do the stream of consciousness thing, but don’t just hit her with the punchline. Proactively, give her regular updates on the state of your mind. If you are reluctant to speak up because you are afraid that she will get upset or critical, say that at the front end, tell her what you need in terms of support – I don’t need feedback now, I’m just brainstorming. Just listening would be great.
Note to woman: Listening is good. Don’t get critical, micro-managing, upset. Your emotion or criticism will cause him to pull away and go back into his cave, or cause him to worry about fixing you and your concerns, and distract him from figuring out his own emotions and solutions. He is trying to sort out his problem. Ask how you can help.
So to summarize: Women, break it down, listen. Guys listen, make noises to let her know you are listening, slow down, let her know what is going on in your head. And when it is working, when the other guy is doing it right, let em know.
There you have it. It's all a matter of practice.
And Hey, thanks for listening. I’m feeling better already.