Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
March 2013 - Volume 13, No. 3
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Communicating with Men

This newsletter is more specifically for women.
Last month I wrote advice to men about communicating with women. A reader then asked me to do the same for men, giving women some advice about communicating with us. It turns out to be very different subject from what I wrote last month.  

Perhaps this should be written by a woman, since it’s commonly assumed women understand us men much better than we understand ourselves. But that would buy into a male passivity that has already become too persistent with men. No, this needs to be written by a man.

While what I say here may not be technically true, and may not fit the standard canon of opinion on the subject. Nevertheless, I offer it a useful map of the territory.  

Just under the surface of a woman, is a constant ‘bubbling’ of words. There’s always material immediately at hand to fuel and serve a conversation. Men will sometimes use the word “chatter,” though not necessarily with its negative connotation. A woman once wrote me, “We (women) throw words around carelessly and as a chatter box, when in fact we need them most to be heard. It is our way to cover our feelings and especially when they run deep.”

While with women there seem to be an abundance of words readily available, in like manner, just under the surface of a man, is a consistent silence.  

So my first advice to women is to give us time. I recall a number of years ago, working with a young couple, telling her, “When he says ‘I don’t know’ that’s only his first answer. Just give him time to come up with his second (the real) answer.” That alone made me her hero, and apparently, according to her report, for many of her girlfriends as well. 

Men frequently will say, “I don’t know” at the beginning of or within a conversation. It rarely means literally ‘I don’t know’ but more often, “give me time to think.”  It takes time for us to penetrate through that underlying silence to get to a place where we can find the language or process words to honestly express what’s going on inside us. (We can, of course, with practice learn to speed up the process.)

It may be useful to consider that women think faster, but men think deeper.  

Yes, for men, conversation is like work.  It’s part of getting something done, which is the central essence of the masculine world. At our best, we are doers. Out in the world, the world of work, language exists primarily to get things done. Whereas it seems to me that in the domestic world, the primary model of women’s communication is that language works best to build and maintain relationships. When women talk with friends, you often see their eyes dance with joy, and no matter what their ‘word chatter’ says, they mean ‘I like being with you.’   

The suffering of women who have nobody to ‘talk to’ is intense.  So is the wordless pain of men who lack the appreciation for that work of ‘swimming through the silence’ to find a word or words of connection.  

In my own experience, I recall moments of pain in a conversation when I have ‘worked’ to come up with an expression of my inner experience, only to have a women immediately complain that her own experience is worse. It feels like what I have shared is then ripped off and then discarded. It’s so very tempting to just go to silence here. It has taken me a good bit of life to learn not to take that as a put-down - i.e. I’ve learned to ‘not take it seriously.’  And, remarkably when I don’t, the woman is usually grateful.

Women are gaining their voice in our culture, and as a man, I enjoy supporting that. But I also counsel that with an increasing ‘voice’ comes also a greater responsibility to listen.  Men will frequently share a gut-level ‘memory’ of beginning to speak from a deeper place, only to have a woman jump in to counter it.  I consider it no wonder that men have stopped talking.      

I recall once a woman friend, upon asking me a particular question, then noted (with a grin) “Now be very careful how you answer that!” It was not a hostile remark, rather an acknowledgment that she had put me in an ambiguous place, where I could easily stumble if I didn’t think things out carefully. I cherished that realization that “she understood!” 

My male clients frequently note that at one particular time, this answer can be the right one, and at another time, maybe just five minutes later, only a different answer will work. How to discern the difference? That’s the art of a man knowing a woman. It’s also why a man will usually want to think carefully before speaking. So, women, trust our silences to be places where we are exercising our greatest art and care in loving you (or surviving your anger).  

Men value silence with each other, especially in important relationships. Whereas the stance of women in relationship with each other is generally face to face, the stance of men in relationship with each other is more shoulder to shoulder. When men and women are face to face with each other, it can become an invitation to erotic energy - the mapping of which is much greater than a simple newsletter. 

Of course, there’s always a flip side. We men can hide in our silences, avoiding the work of relationship building, avoiding the vulnerability of accounting for ourselves in ways that could otherwise build and heal with each other. This is what I mean by male passivity, where we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves - our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviors. It’s much easier just to blame the woman.

Another flip side is that as men we would rather compete than contemplate. When I have an opponent, I don’t have to think as much. Maybe it’s the color sweatshirt I wear on Saturday afternoons.  (And it does seem a majority of couples end up wearing matching sweatshirts.)  

But when the competition becomes one that precludes any constructive conversation - such as sexual jealousy or obsessive controlling behavior, personal safety becomes a more important matter, and no skills of conversation are effective, the important conversation is within, and standing for oneself becomes most important. 

Let me offer one more need that men want women to understand. That is found within the word “respect.” Men more and more live in a world where who we are and what we do has little respect, especially in this new age where the ‘business model’ is preeminent as the matrix of social order. (Of course, we hear the immediate female competitive response, “You think you have it bad, look at what we’ve had to endure for years...” - and you are right.)

But I’ll say this from the male side: A man knows that once he asks for respect, she can’t truly give it. True respect cannot be asked for, because then it’s no longer given as a gift. I’ve seen this frequently in my office. We want our women to see it on their own, and honor us for it. Honor us that we work hard, especially in a world which cares less and less (not in comparison with you, who often do work harder). A woman who gives her man some ‘atta boys‘ gives a great gift. As a therapist, I am able to suggest this to a women - and her response is frequently an acknowledgment that she too often forgets, has taked him for granted. As with a man who regularly ‘atta girls’ his woman, so with a man. Both sides are often starved for words of praise and affirmation. Often in this world there are very few other places we can look for it.  (Remember that the eyes alone can ‘speak’ this same gift.)   

A man’s world is usually a lonelier world than a woman’s world. And in some ways we like it that way. Personally, when I don’t have my alone-with-myself times, something within me dies. Yet underneath that loneliness, that silence, is a desire to be with somebody. And a woman who keeps showing up on the other side of that silence, can be a true treasure.  

So in conclusion, I’ll suggest to women, that they honor (aka, put up with) our depths, our silences, our slownesses - but don’t let us run away with them. Keep reaching through and reaching through and reaching through. And a good man will love you forever for staying with him.

So, to both sides,    

Pay attention

Comments (7)

  • I am not so sure I agree that women have lots of words and men have their silences. I think this is true regardless of sex. It is more about a way of thinking about things than it is about gender. I am not saying that when it comes to relationships and emotion, that women don’t tend to be more likely to talk through it – I don’t know. I haven’t seen studies that actually measure it. But I do know that having words to describe and share what is going on for me is situational. There are many times when I am going through unfamiliar territory and have no words yet to describe what is happening for me. I too, rely on silence and need to create a space where I can think through what is happening.

    — Michelle, 3/4/2013
  • I am guilty of this. Iam sure it is one of the things I learned when I was young form my mother. I could feel the tension raise just reading this. It caught in my throat and felt like lead. Heavy and dense. I remember that feeling from childhood.
    Maybe as women we have all learned: by turning something around on the other person it discounts that person and negates what they say. This gives us the edge in the conversation or arguement. It brings the man to our way of thinking and therefore will never need to understand his thought on the matter, even when we have asked for it. It takes all respondsibility off us.
    You have opened up a new and interesting world to me with this information.
    Thank you Bill and please keep writing.

    — Carol, 3/5/2013
  • Lol

    Wow! It’s like you met J and talked to him about my chatter Lol....very eye opening! TY

    — Erin, 3/2/2013
  • I have to agree somewhat with Michelle. Not all women have lots of words and not all men have total silence. Personality can make a big difference. However your information is insightful and does help in understanding the silence – even if it does come after a bubbling of words. I can certainly see where the most compatible couples include one of each.

    — Alice, 3/22/2013
  • Ah ha

    I found this article to be very informative and (in moments painfully all to real, in my life). There are some nuggets of wisdom you provide, writing from heart and head, thank you.

    I find I am, personally, impatient with his long silences to be sure. However, trying to decipher whether he is “thinking” or “hiding” guy seems to do both almost simultaneously. My impatience seems to think its the latter. And does this type of man (one esp slower) mature, as in become quicker & more willing/able to communicate with his woman, or are some men stuck forever?

    — Jenny, 3/10/2014
  • Are all men Narcissists, then??

    Bill, What you say here below makes it sound like ALL MEN are narcissists? I have struggled so much with figuring out the difference between the Mars/Venus stuff and true Narcissism. Could it be that some women are just running away from perfectly “normal” men because we think they are narcissistic? Please explain the difference!!!

    "This is what I mean by male passivity, where we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviors. It’s much easier just to blame the woman.

    Another flip side is that as men we would rather compete than contemplate."

    "This is what I mean by male passivity, where we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviors. It’s much easier just to blame the woman.

    Another flip side is that as men we would rather compete than contemplate."

    — LD, 4/25/2014
  • Hi Bill,
    I was hoping you’d be able to explain the difference between narcissism and a ‘regular guy’ as you outlined above. Still hoping for an answer?!

    — LD, 10/1/2014

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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