Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
February 2013 - Volume 13, No. 2
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Listen to her, Don’t Think!

This newsletter is specifically for men.
Frequently in my work with couples, especially when working to “tune up” their conversation, I’ll do this: I’ll direct the woman to “say something, anything,” and tell the man to “Listen to her, but don’t think.” He may find this directive confusing, but men are usually able to accomplish it. After a brief exchange on their part, I’ll turn to the woman asking for her experience, which is commonly something like “That’s amazing! I felt he really was listening to me.”

This specific awareness came a few years ago, working with a particular middle-aged couple.  I was having little success ‘breaking through’ an elusive and persistent communication difficulty of some years standing. Over time, I had tried most all of the standard communication problem models, but still no success.  

Then, after a particular exchange, I turned to him, a man trained and long employed as an industrial engineer, and asked him to help me. Due to his engineering training, he was able to deconstruct with me his internal mental experience almost half-second by half-second right after his wife had spoken. What emerged was that long before she had stopped speaking, he had discerned what the ‘problem’ was that she was presenting, and had already “gone inside” to search for an appropriate solution - after which he then ‘shared’ with her his solution and/or resolution to her ‘problem.’  

She jumped up and said, “That’s it! That’s what he always does. That’s why he drives me so crazy!” He was completely at a loss to understand what she was saying. She had felt this disconnect for a long time, but as with many women, had never found specific words to express that experience.   

What she experienced was that part way through her speaking, he “left” and “went inside.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building. What he realized was that once he understood her “problem” he went to a place where he could analyze or think about it by which to then present to her a solution.

Generally a woman will complain “you weren’t listening to me” - immediately after which the man, by virtue of a well-functioning short-term memory, can often recall pretty much verbatim every word she’d said. (The ability to recall her words is not the same as listening.) But for the moment he’ll feel vindicated, and she’ll withdraw into an all-too-frequent sadness, usually called hopelessness or depression.

Fortunately my engineer client, because of his analytic abilities, he then saw what was going on, and began to understand her experience. By paying more attention to her as a person, the relationship significantly improved.

It was shortly after that I came up with the specific gimmick phrase, “listen to her, but don’t think.”

Why does this work?  First I’ll venture a macro response, then a micro one - a general response, then a person-specific one. 

Generally we live in two worlds - the outer one (often of employment and business), and the inner world (usually our domestic, home-centered family and relationship world). Each has a different use of language, and each had a different life purpose.

The outer world is one where the principle use of language is to accomplish, to make things, to get things done. The hierarchical structures of most places where we are “employed” are such as to maximize this ability to produce. Production makes money, and we are rewarded with money, by which we can “support” ourselves and our families. The primary value is production, and the currency of that value is money, money for the investors and a paycheck for the workers. In the more elite corners of our economic world, it’s money itself that produces more money, not the workers (which may be the subject of another newsletter).  

But for my purposes here, I’ll still hold onto the model that the worker works to produce - and my engineer husband had an excellent mental strategy for doing that well. He will develop the most efficient way to understand and effect what needs to be done. That’s why he’s hired as an engineer - and a good one.  

But in his domestic world, it’s often the female who holds quite a different principle use of language. She wants to be heard - heard as a person.  When a woman complains “you don’t listen to me,” she’s speaking about being acknowledged as a person, here and now. That’s different from the norm out in the world of work - where being heard means attending to messages that have to do with getting things done. Out there it’s what I do, in here it’s who I am. (And there are many situations where the gender roles I’ve noted are reversed.)

Now I must acknowledge other situations where a woman has asked a man to ‘do something’ such as “put up a shelf over the washer” - and it’s been seven months she’s been asking! For a man, that’s work, and often he just doesn’t want to work once he’s home. It can seem that the natural habitat for a man ‘at home’ is on the couch with a remote in his hand.  

Then too, it’s not uncommon with some contending couples for the man to come home from ‘work’ and complain to his wife, “what have you done all day!” - seeing the house as “a mess.” I’ll often find that when he begins treating/acknowledging her as a real person worthy of listening to, the house will get more attention, even if it’s not her strong suit. 

Years ago I heard the story of a visit to Princeton by Sigmund Freud. Some aspiring graduate student asked him “Dr Freud, what is your definition of a healthy personality?” To which the eminent psychologist answered, “The ability to love and the ability to work.”  (Lieben und arbeiten). The ability to do both, to live in both worlds, is what I’m talking about here.  A high level accomplishment, especially for men. (For women this seems more genetically wired in.) 

A corollary to this can be sexual problems in a relationship. When sex becomes work, desire dies. When it is the relationship at play, it flourishes.  

Be there with her - stay with her, enjoy her, don’t think.

Pay attention

Another important corollary is listening to our children. They are so hungry to be heard, to know they are significant. Every worthy parent and every worthy teacher knows that children will often forget what is said to them but they will never forget how we made them feel.

Comments (3)

  • dense truth this one

    Other aspects of this trap - feeling attacked during a discussion and feeling the need to “win” - any weakness in my sense of manhood and power. All drive me toward a defensive posture and listening only to look for the opportunity to flip the opponent. The relationship at play was so on the mark.

    — scott, 2/1/2013
  • wow.....when sex becomes work... it dies.....
    and scotts comment scares me too. I think i am trying too hard

    — beam, 2/4/2013
  • You may have intended this for a male audience, but there is information here for every woman to understand as well.

    — Alice, 2/9/2013

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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