The most common opening complaint I hear when couples come to see me for counseling is some variation on “we don’t communicate well.” Communication is an essential relationship skill, and it is regrettable that we spend more time in high school learning trigonometry than interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication is something you do every day. Trigonometry – not so much.
There is an old joke that if you were to publish a book on what men understand about women, it would be a front and back cover and no more. So I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that there is a gender divide in communication styles, and my professional experience certainly bears that out.
Whether you believe it is evolutionary or divinely ordained, naturally inborn or societally influenced, it is a common dynamic that plays out in relationships between men and women. This is not just because we may be uneducated or unpracticed in communication but because we communicate in fundamental ways.
For this reason, men often miss the mark when trying to be helpful or communicative with their significant others.
Interpersonal Communication: 4 Reasons Men Get it Wrong!
1. Wanting to Solve a Problem
This is probably the top mistake men will make when their significant other is sharing something with them. Men hear a problem and want to solve it. Their hear pain and frustration and want to make it go away. So she’ll say, “my boss is such a jerk,” and he’ll respond, “Maybe you should report him,” thinking he is being helpful as ham. He is therefore utterly confused when this leads to further frustration and problems rather than less of both. He genuinely means to help!
The problem here is that very often, your partner doesn’t want a solution. She just wants to know you care, that you are there for her. She is looking for validation and empathy, not solutions.
As counterintuitive as it might seem to you, a better response than how she might handle her boss is simply an empathic. “man, that guy is a real pain.” Does it solve anything? No. Will your partner feel better? Yes.
I could go on about why this is and how this works, but a far stronger proof is – try it. I am confident you will see a difference. If you are genuine about empathizing with her, even if it seems forced and artificial, it will hit the mark.
2. Minimizing Problems
Another way in which we guys blow it is to try to minimize the problem. To a guy, it might seem like a helpful approach to show how the issue is not really as big as she’s making it out to be – then it isn’t at bothersome, right?
In fact, you might well be right that the problem is really not that big. And pointing that out would still not be the right thing to do! Minimizing the problem, in fact, sends a message of invalidation to your partner instead of validation. It says, “your perspective on this is out of whack. Your reaction is wrong.” It doesn’t come across as supportive at all, even if you mean it to be.
Once again, the answer here is to allow the problem to exist as it is and just validate that. “Yeah, I can see how difficult it must be to have bought the wrong color nail polish. That’s really rough.” Whether this is or is not objectively a Big Deal is up for debate – just not when she’s bumming out about it. Your best response is validation and empathy.
3. Reassuring and Dismissing
Sometimes you’ll hear a problem that’s bothering your girlfriend and you want to make her feel better because you’re that kind of nice guy. Great. So you listen to her feelings about it and you help her feel better by pointing out that it’s going to be okay, that it won’t last forever. Right? Wrong.
You are still in a sense looking at the solution (time) and not the problem (now). You are again saying that the problem is not so bad because of such-and-such reason, which is a form of minimizing.
You may indeed believe that things will get better (although, for most readers, who are not psychics, you can’t really know for sure, can you?). But until you allow her to process the now, she likely won’t be ready for that next step. Stick with the problem as it is before moving on to what’s going to be next.
Here’s another approach men sometimes will take in communicating with their partners: she’ll bring up something that she’s excited about, or something that’s bothering her, or what have you. You, in trying to connect with her experience and “be with her in the moment,” strike the right tone and say, “Yeah, that can be so [insert feeling here.]
I remember one time that happened to me and blah, blah, blah…” You think, what could be more empathic than sharing your own similar experience? The answer, it turns out, is “a lot.”
The way this kind of comparing often comes across is as self-centeredness. “Here I am dealing with this issue and all he can do is talk about himself!” You may have 100% the right intention, but the message you are sending isn’t conveying it. In order to connect with her, you don’t need to prove that you’ve been there too.
It is not likely you’d be able to pull out that response for the majority of experiences she will share with you anyway, and in those situations too you will still have to be able to connect with where she’s at. The way to do that is – you guessed it – validation and empathy (seeing a theme here?). Listen to what she’s saying.
Acknowledge the difficulty. Sit with the emotion and let her spill her guts, repeatedly if necessary. What she’s going through is what she’s going through, and it is not necessarily addressed by what you’ve gone through yourself.
Empathy is a skill that can be learned like any other. I have seen this approach bring significant positive change to many relationships. If you feel that communication problems are plaguing yours, give this stuff a shot.
You may want to seek the help of an empathy coach (whom we generally refer to as therapists) to make sure you’re getting it right, just as you can benefit from a coach on virtually any new skill you’re trying to pick up. Except, unlike trigonometry, this one really will come in handy.