A few months ago, I asked my female friends on social media to share their best advice for men. I got a lot of responses. Interestingly, when I did the same thing and asked men to share their best advice for women, the advice was not nearly so forthcoming. Are men intimidated to speak about the things that bother them? That is an article for another day.
The following is my letter to men, based on what these women seem to want men to know.
Dear Modern Man
Times are changing and it’s very hard to know what the right thing to do is, especially because every woman is different, so generalizations aren’t always helpful.
Let me first put it out there and say that being a man in this generation offers many rewards and challenges. Striking the right balance between confidant and thoughtful, proud and aggressive, helpful and a pushover can be very hard. Yet the confining definitions of how a man should be, are also evolving. It can be freeing as well as confusing.
Ironically, after listening to these many women speak (thank you ladies for sharing), the resounding theme could be boiled down to one word: listen. It would be premature if I concluded the article now, although if you do walk away with only one thing, let it be the word: “listen.”
Easier said than done. Let’s quickly explore why.
First off, some men don’t like to be told what to do. So if they are told to listen, despite knowing that it’s probably a good idea, they may be tempted to push back. It’s a natural way to assert a position of power.
Secondly, listening requires valuing the other persons opinion over your desire to be heard. I think our human need for emotional safety short circuits the ability to really hear and value what an “attacking” person is saying. It feels better in the moment to shut out and reject the information, rather than explore the content for truth.
Thirdly, listening is often hard work. When someone goes on and on and on about a topic that you don’t care about, it can feel like root canal. Please make it stop! However men, is your lack of interest obvious? That tuned out look on your face may be just pouring gasoline on her fire. And when she is lit, the speed and volume often increases, and now you got more of what you didn’t want in the first place. Longer and louder content and more drama.
Fourthly, listening may mean trading off something you’d rather be doing for something you certainly do not want to be doing. Ever been in the middle of doing something, only to be interrupted by a question or request? It can feel like such an annoyance, inconvenience, or downright rude! If you tell yourself that this person in intentionally trying to get on your last nerve, then it’s more likely that you will resent the interruption.
And last but not least, listening may require action. Honestly, it might be more convenient to not hear the content. What if I don’t know how to respond or what to do to fix the problem? What if she asks me to do something that I have no interest in? It can feel like the trap has been set and she is waiting for you to step right into it.
I think it is important to first determine why listening is important. Do you want to develop an improving relationship? Maybe not. If you don’t then listening doesn’t make sense. You might as well keep on keepin’ on, and do what you have always done. But if you do want to have an improving relationship, then listening well is necessary.
Men are conditioned to be problem solvers. When there is a problem you can count on a man to assess, suggest or fix the problem. In some situations, this is the best course of action. However, in my experience as a couples therapist, women are often seeking a different course of action. They are looking for the emotional support that comes from curious listening and validation of their experience. It also really helps to believe that the person who is venting, is actually capable of their own solutions after feeling supported by you. I hope it is very freeing for you to not have to have all the answers. Instead, you can relax in knowing that supporting her is often all she needs.
Relationships are a blend of give and take. Wouldn’t it be great if giving was always easy and convenient while taking was always of great benefit to us. This isn’t the case. In relationships, giving sometimes is a sacrifice while taking means we take the burdens off of our partner. Maturation requires that we men express our love in sacrificial ways that don’t always directly benefit us, but does benefit the growth of the relationship.
There are few things in life that shows a person they are valuable like being given attention. Attending to your partner is a great way to show them they are valuable in your eyes. Be aware of how you communicate this men. Set aside the distractions and look her in her eyes and truly listen, as if you have never heard her talk about the subject before. Show an interest. Remember when you first met, and you thought she was interesting? Ya go there again. Tune in to what she is talking about and ask curious questions that lets her know you want to understand her, just because you are interested in what she finds important.
Relationships are a test and reflection of who we are as humans. We men like to feel connected, but we also like autonomy. We like to make our own decisions and also be trusted that we can make good decisions for others. Being second guessed feels insulting to our pride, and yes our pride/self-esteem is an issue. Our pride can help us to muster up the strength to do many things and it can also get in the way. Pride itself is not a problem. It’s more about how it is directed, either for good or bad. So the next time you find yourself shutting out what your partner is saying, do a quick scan, and ask: “why is this so difficult to listen to right now? Which raw spots are feeling uncomfortable and is my pride rising up to protect while also preventing me from really hearing what my partner is saying?” This response is counter productive, because you will also be pushing away your partner who wanted to feel heard.
Guys, listening doesn’t solve all the problems of the world, but it sure helps. The one thing I have noticed about listening is that the more a person feels heard and validated, the more they feel comfortable to do it in return. Their defences also come down. This means that the more you listen well, the greater the likelihood that she is going to be inspired to really listen and understand you as well, shifting the conversation from a singles match, in which you are on opposite sides of the net, to a doubles match, in which you are both on the same side of the net and working together.