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3 Surprising Ways to Help Stoic Men Open Up

2. Talk shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face.

Key points

  • Beneath male armor is a world of deep feelings, needs, and desires.
  • Recognizing the origins and functions of silence can be validating and promote openness.
  • Speaking shoulder-to-shoulder, as well as asking fact-based, open-ended questions can create a foothold for sharing with men.
Michal Sanca/Shutterstock
Source: Michal Sanca/Shutterstock

He’s looking everywhere but your eyes, crossing his arms and leaning back. So you lean forward with willpower and dig in to determine if he’s given up.

“Everything’s fine,” he assures in his ritual way, inching him further East and you West.

As your sense of aloneness sets in, you may wonder if it’s even possible to crack the "façade of fine" to access his mysterious feelings, needs, or desires.

While working with men in psychotherapy, I’m reminded that beneath their armor are fears of letting their loved ones down or exhaustion from feeling beaten down. Men anticipate coming under attack or failing with “wrong” responses. Some can’t bear the anticipatory shame of burdening family or friends with their neediness, being an inadequate protector, or failing to generate solutions that secure a spouse's happiness. Going silent seems safe. It’s an automatic shutdown system to prevent the leak of these “hazardous” inner states.

Sometimes silence signals emotional detachment stemming from trauma or an avoidant attachment style. Avoidant attachment is a relationship model that results from early childhood experiences and involves avoiding connection due to fear of conflict or rejection. It may require a professional to help distinguish guarded silence from abusive “silent treatment,” an emotionally immature behavior intended to punish, manipulate, or communicate contempt.

Before calling upon strategies to get through to a son, brother, father, or husband—call in. What’s your history of interacting with stoic males? While the best scenario is that boys and men take responsibility for their inner worlds, it can help to take stock of your past experiences and how they may influence his withdrawal behavior.

While specific strategies for dealing with disengagement may be productive, e.g., framing issues using shared values or goals, inviting reflection, suggesting therapy, creating a non-judgmental space, or educating about gender socialization, they may seem impractical in the heat of the moment.

Emotional guardedness isn’t specific to males, yet we can tailor creative approaches by considering their unique make-up and masculine norms. Below are three non-traditional, non-shaming strategies to elicit vulnerability that I’ve gathered from psychotherapy, colleagues, and my experience as a man prone to silence.

1. Salute the silence.

“I can appreciate why you get so quiet when talking about tough things…”

What appears to be toxic self-reliance is sometimes an over-learned response of easing conflict through containment. From early on, men restrain movement in their facial muscles because appearing unmoved can mean the difference between a handshake and hell breaking loose—especially in hyper-masculine circles where violence is imminent.

Males compete as a precursor to bonding too, and those who coolly perform under pressure are elected leaders and earn trust. In the boyhood arena, concealing vulnerable feelings is distressing but manageable relative to the terror of getting rejected by your tribe for being overly sensitive and deemed unreliable.

Complicating things is that appearing unfazed carries value into adulthood. It’s an asset for delicate practices like performing surgery or in occupations requiring you to be unshaken by adversity. I hope a firefighter arrives at my window wearing a look of unwavering composure.

Saluting silence is not about giving approval or respecting male emotional avoidance. It's about recognizing the humanity of those making their way in a society that often focuses on what they do (or don't) rather than who they are.

2. Start shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Let’s go out for a walk to talk…”

Men often describe face-to-face sit-downs as stressful because it calls forth a performance for which they’re outmatched. Conversations become unwinnable contests. At times, eye contact can be interpreted as a staredown.

I recently spoke with a psychotherapist who set up chairs at a 45-degree angle when meeting with young male clients, as it eases defensiveness. This is why positioning side-by-side can promote collaboration and reduce confrontation.

Male socialization involves being ranked, judged, or loved for one’s abilities, so boys learn early on to use language to one-up or display knowledge. While girls undergo different conditioning, linguist Deborah Tannen has explained how they’re likelier to use face-to-face “rapport talk” to negotiate closeness (e.g., share secrets).

Joining men in shoulder-to-shoulder “report talk” has boyhood roots in sitting on dugout benches or pews, building forts, or peering up at fireworks they’ve set off. Play a video game with your son, cook with your boyfriend, face a lake or the night sky, and then slowly transition into the "no man’s land" of a heartfelt exchange.

3. Cue emotions with physical actions and facts.

If you ask your teenage son, “How’d you feel about the game today?” he may respond, “Fine.”

But what if you asked, “What was running through your mind just as you approached the ball for that penalty kick in the first half?”

Fact-based, open-ended questions incorporating bodily awareness can promote sharing. Embodied cognition posits that cognitive processes, including memory and language, can be grounded in sensory and motor functions.

Research also indicates that males are less adept than females in remembering the details of emotional events. Some don’t possess rich vocabularies for emotions; others don’t know where to begin when asked, “How are you?” They freeze up, especially when confronted by a partner with a talent for recounting, with vivid detail, the minutia of their day.

This more embodied approach is orienting and offers a foothold that can empower men to venture off and be curious about their inner worlds.

Conclusion: A Cross-Cultural Diplomacy Mindset

When encouraging boys and men to be more expressive, keeping a cross-cultural mindset can stimulate compassionate, outside-the-box thinking. It’s the difference between knowing “Why are you so empty inside?” and noticing “Sometimes you talk much more than other times…”

Once he acknowledges, “I don’t know why I’m having trouble talking, but I want to figure it out,” it indicates that the iron curtain is crumbling and that soft diplomacy might be working.

Facebook image: Martin Novak/Shutterstock

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Brizendine, L. (2011, January 25). The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think. Harmony.

Canli, T., Desmond, J. E., Zhao, Z., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002, July 26). Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(16), 10789–10794.

Foglia, L., & Wilson, R. A. (2013, February 8). Embodied cognition. WIREs Cognitive Science, 4(3), 319–325.

Ianì, F. (2019, October 25). Embodied memories: Reviewing the role of the body in memory processes. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 26(6), 1747–1766.

Tannen, D. (2001, September 14). You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.

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