Please tell me what you want, not what I have to do.
Eden was upset.
John was nervous.
Eden, with her good communication skills, had asked John to “just listen.” John knew that meant he couldn’t fix her problem. So he listened. And when she was done talking it all out, she looked up at him with pain on her face and cried out,
You’re not going to say anything?!!!
John threw his hands in the air. “What do you want from me? I don’t fix and I listen, and now it seems you want me to fix . . .something . . . Tell me, what do you want me to do?!”
Eden was about to launch in and tell John exactly what she wanted him to do.
But then she paused.
Perhaps you’ve been where Eden and John were.
It can be maddening. With so many different communication needs and styles, how do we navigate?
Even though telling our partners exactly what we want is an adult move that enables us to take responsibility for our needs, it also activates a parental role — one that can spark a power dynamic that works against intimacy.
We teach our partners, friends and even co-workers how to treat us. Sharing our preferences and needs is an adult way to get the love we want (thank you, Harville Hendrix). Everyone needs a little direction in how to behave in relationships. But there is a difference between giving someone “direction” and telling them what to do (instruction).
Some relationship counselors advise their patients to tell their partners exactly what to do: “Give your partner the script of how you want them to behave.” But I’ve noticed that this action frequently backfires, because it comes across as controlling. Even though telling our partners exactly what we want is an adult move that enables us to take responsibility for our needs, it also activates a parental role — one that can spark a power dynamic that works against intimacy. Yes, even when our partner is asking for it.
What to do instead? How do we tell the difference between direction and instruction? Sometimes the difference lies in intention, tone and syntax. Here’s an example of two similar communiques:
Direction: I really need you to listen without fixing (a request)
Instruction: Sit down and listen without saying or trying to fix anything. Then just tell me everything’s going to be alright.
She had been down this road before and knew she would increase both of their frustration if she launched into teaching him how to listen to her in that moment.
Back to our couple at the start; John, in his exasperation, thought he was seeking direction, but he was seeking instruction. Eden found herself in a bind. She had been down this road before and knew she would increase both of their frustration if she launched into teaching him how to listen to her in that moment. She waited till they calmed down to figure out what needed to be done.
Here’s what she came up with: “I see how frustrating I can be when I’m upset. I can’t really teach you how to listen in a way that makes me feel you really hear me. But I do know we’ll figure it out.”
(a stellar communique that acknowledges difference and inspires hope)
John, genuinely wanting to please, pushed. “Can you give me a few pointers?”
“I always feel better when you look me in the eyes when I’m talking or upset,” Eden shared. “But other than that, you might have to seek advice from someone else or figure this one out on your own. In the meantime, I’m going to try to talk to my girlfriends when I’m super upset first, so I can be more logical when I share with you.”
And just like that, they were collaborating. Instead of diminishing John’s creativity or authority with instruction, she took responsibility for her own issues and left his part up to him.
In your clear communication, are you directing, or instructing? Here are some examples that can work, if you use them with loving intentions and tone:
Direct by request:
Can you put the dishes away after you dry them? Ask me if you don’t know where something goes.
Direct by feedback:
I love it when you . . .
It turns me off when you . . .
Teach only activities:
If (and only if!) your partner is a willing student you can teach your partner to cook, rock climb, or upload snazzy photos to Instagram, but when it comes to matters of the heart — better to let them learn the skills they need from someone else. Otherwise, you run the risk of setting up a power dynamic and stepping into a role that resembles a controlling parent — no fun for date night.
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Interesting article. You raise some good points. Somethings for you to consider and expand upon. So Eden was a good communicator? Was this her view or actual reality? We have to remember that even if we consider ourselves “good communicators” there will be instances when we are not communicating very well at all. What did Eden “really” want? Did she want John to just listen or did she want him to do something else? Did Eden really know what she wanted or was she merely speaking out loud hoping to figure things out on the fly and perhaps… Read more »
Meanwhile, how do you define a “good communicator”, anyway? Eden, with her good communication skills, had asked John to “just listen.” Aren’t we often biased to presume women to be good communicators (i.e. on average, better than men) simply because they talk more? But shouldn’t a set of “good communication skills” also include: 1) An ability to listen, since communication, as opposed to statements and orders, are supposed to flow both ways? and 2) An ability to adjust the their style of communication to their target audience so that their message is most effectively received, instead of just trumpeting out… Read more »
These are such good points. I think so many people are trained to behave as though they are communicating rather than, as you suggest, simply listening and tailoring. Thanks for adding to the convo!
Unfortunately the whole premise in resolving these differences often falls to one partner taking the higher road, stopping to take stock and responding effectively (the woman in your example). It’s tiring if you are always the partner to do this. To exercise some self control and stop before the argument spirals out and loved ones get hurt. Your partner can’t be instructed to do this – it’s a characteristic of the person. If you truly love someone, there will be times you don’t take the high road and you’ll have to hope the relationship is strong enough to absorb the… Read more »
I think too many women underestimate how much empathy men have because they are expecting the feminized variant they get from other women in their life as opposed to the kind men are use to showing. Often men want to fix things because they have seen and felt her emotions (a successful use of empathy) but were raised on a gendered version of how best to respond to such situations. The key is to inform your partner of what you want and appreciate them for wanting to make you feel better, to really identify and understand how much they want… Read more »
So true, Ric!
But empathy is something that many women try to teach men and it backfires. There has to be a genuine desire to learn empathy if it is not a natural response (or it once was a natural response that has been overtaken by cultural programming to fix ).
I have found that men excel at learning empathy in the company of other men.
Thanks so much for commenting here.
Hi Blair, Interesting article, that I think we can all learn a lot from. But I think that simply saying that men need to learn empathy, you’re making it a little bit too easy for yourself. I think that what a woman (or a man for that matter) really needs in the situation you describe, is much too complex to be boiled down to one out of three alternatives (fixing, listening, or empathy). There are far too many nuances between the three, that even the person being upset probably doesn’t know exactly what she (or he!) really needs in that… Read more »
Flying! I am so glad you read it! I totally get your frustration! The “empathy” part was in a comment from a reader. I certainly didn’t say anything about learning empathy in the post. I was simply suggesting — as your story points out — that it’s better to know who to go to in times of distress, and that your girlfriend is not the one to teach you how to be there for her. She can ask for your help — but if she can’t accept your help the way you give it — better to find a way… Read more »
Perhaps there are some other alternatives, as well…
Yes; it’s true, we guys like to fix things. (Great title for a blog post, by the way!)
I have a feeling that we might sometimes need an empathetic response. Not fixing, not just listening – but one that somehow shows that we’re not alone in our woes.