Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
April 2022 - Volume 22, No. 4
Some Random Relationship Advice for Men
For some 45 years I’ve been coaching men and women how to communicate with each other - and learning a lot myself in the process as well. Perhaps a better title for this article would be How and why to listen to women. Or perhaps more directly,
Listen to Women.
First let me say this information may not be either complete or even accurate - and somewhat idealistic. Some will find it downright sexist. But it does come from a lot of personal experience that I find useful for sharing, especially with men in relationship with women.
In almost a half century of listening and conversation with a woman or women, I still have the incidental experience of “(wow) I never saw it that way” or even more unsettling, “OMG, I’ve done that myself!”
Don’t get in the way
In a context of rights, I say it like this:Men can claim a right to speak and be heard. Women can claim a right to speak - but prevailing culture can preempt their being heard. That’s why I will advise men to consciously not get in the way when a woman chooses to speak.
Often I will teach men, when they catch themselves wanting to defend, justify or explain - to just stop! - even in mid-sentence. Especially in conversation with a woman. Nothing of value will happen. My personal cues are that my voice goes up, my hands and/or shoulders go up. In conversation with a women, it effectively signals we’ve stopped listening. I call it ‘lording it over from a one-down position’. Listening in silence is a better response.
Women need to be heard. A corollary with men is that we need to be recognized for our work. We have value even if we only just get paid. A woman has value if her voice is heard. And it is often up to the hearer, as men, to grant that. Keep in mind that being heard doesn’t have to mean being agreed with. It’s when a woman can speak and be heard that she exists. (Like when a man can work and get things done, he knows he exists.)
That’s a major gift of a man to a woman - to support her in being heard. And I have learned so much over the years by listening to the word-talk of a woman.
Again, the primary purpose of men when they talk is work, getting things done. The primary purpose of women when they talk is to affirm relationship. When men listen to women talking to each other, we often call it ‘chatter’ (so do they), as if nothing is being accomplished. A woman once said to me that they’re just celebrating being in a relationship with each other.
Another useful understanding - is that when a man is put down by the words of another, he is diminished, made less. When a woman is not heard, she is more ‘erased’. I recall back in the early days of ‘women’s lib’ I saw a woman’s t-shirt that said “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” I still recall the existential pain I felt at that early moment in my psycho-social development. That experience taught me what it was like to just be erased. In the same manner, there were a number of years when I didn’t hold a door open for a woman. It was some years later I returned to holding a door for a woman, even a stranger - and still I’m amazed at how much that act is appreciated. There were definitely parts of me that felt ‘erased’ back in those heady years.
I’ll coach a man in the semantic wisdom that when we use the word ‘but’, it essentially erases everything before it. For example, I could say to a woman “You are a very attractive woman, but you could lose a few pounds.” The words before the ‘but’ are effectively erased - and she will know it. Now if I reversed those words, and said “You could lose a few pounds, but you are a very attractive woman” - the damage of the criticism is at least reduced. So I’ll coach a man to be careful about his use of “but.” Sometimes just using “and” in it’s place makes a useful difference
Another erasure I witness in my office is when a man goes inside his head to ‘analyze’ the situation. It’s not than a good analytical mind isn’t to be appreciated, but when I look at the woman I can feel her “well, he just left me” experience. So there are times I’ll say to the man, “don’t think, just listen.”That makes good sense to the woman, but no sense at all initially to the man. Yet when the man can do it anyway, the woman strangely feels much more included. (And the man may feel confused about “what just happened?”)
Perhaps it’s beginning to make more sense when I say don’t get in the way of a woman being true to her part of a conversation with us.
One of the better descriptions of marriage is this - a lifelong relationship committed to exploring the mystery of each other. Two of the better means of accomplishing this are through good sex and trustworthy (honest) conversation. Both are important tools in my counseling medicine bag - and here I’m focusing primarily on the latter. (Though there is much overlapping by each as well, as well as an ever evolving maturity.) Both can ‘penetrate the mysteries’ of each other, yet with an awareness that each can be so easily abused.
Hopefully I’ve added here to the tools especially for men in the art of conversation with women (or a woman).
Two more quick things to keep in mind, 1) every rule here can have an exception, and 2) listen afterwards as well. Much understanding will come after the fact, like going over my notes after a client session, or spending a few extra thinking moments in the bathroom.
Onward, Brothers, into the Mystery.
At times, when I’m working with a couple about the art and benefit of a man listening to a woman, I’ll make the following (perhaps outrageous) observation:“When a woman experiences that she’s genuinely being heard, she’ll want to give a man anything he wants.” Then I’ll look directly at the woman and ask if I’m right. Very often she’ll look directly back at me, begin a slow grin, and say in a low voice “Oh Yes!.” In my office over the years, that has happened many times.
I’ve been fortunate to learn and experience some of the ways of the Native Americans. In their history-custom the men will gather in council to talk out (in consensus) decisions necessary for the benefit of the tribe or the people. But that’s not the end of the process. Next the decision is presented to the women for their approval or critique. Only then can the decision be fully valid. It’s like mature women (individually and/or in group) know or see things that even mature men just don’t, and their final word is by tradition and necessity sought out.
And I’m wise enough to know this is not a matter of courtesy, it’s a matter of the ritual wisdom of balance.
From a 2011 television interview with Dr. Roland Williams, then Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.
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