I once had the privilege of holidaying in French Polynesia. Apart from the picture perfect beaches, my most vivid memory of the trip is of a waiter we had one night. After explaining that I was unsure about some of the dishes, and wasn’t very hungry, but really wanted to try this entrée and that main, I put down the menu and looked at him expectantly. With more disdain than I thought was possible in a single expression, he looked at me for the longest time before saying, with a thick French accent, “You talk very fast.” I sat dumbfounded, then started over, slowly and carefully, and without making eye contact. It was a lovely but uncomfortable meal.
While it was clear that we both spoke English, he was unwilling to listen to my rapid-fire garble, and effectively demanded that I enunciate everything at the rate he could transcribe it. I did it because I wanted dinner, but it was a frustrating and slightly humiliating experience. However, I have found that this ‘language barrier’ exists in relationships too. You would expect that a couple from different nationalities would have some communication issues, but we who marry the girl next door or our high school sweetheart naively assume that we will understand each other because we speak the same language. However, like my friend the waiter, we have different expectations of how those common words should be used, and struggle when our partner doesn’t understand us.
What happens more often than not is that we hear each other just fine – the sounds make words and the words make sense – but we don’t really listen. This is a problem that most men have and most women bemoan. I have lost track of how many conversations I have had with my wife that have escalated into arguments because I have taken the words and addressed them without listening to what she was trying to say. The difference is subtle but vital to the communication process.
As a man, I generally try to work with logic (or my own variation of it), reason, and the can-do attitude that identifies problems and looks for solutions. It’s what makes me the best one to deal with the car when it is making funny noises or the tax department when the returns won’t balance. As a woman, my wife is more inclined toward empathy and emotions, working with compassion and sensitivity to preserve relationships and value people. That’s why she writes the greeting cards and the kid’s skinned knees. However, when we have to work something out between us, these valuable distinctions become perilous.
My wife will tell me how she is feeling; her fears and frustrations, her hurts and joys. I will hear every word of it, intent on understanding her. Then I will try to fix what I can, reducing the volatile mix of emotion and passion to a form of arithmetic that I can solve. She will become frustrated, and restate how she is feeling. I’ll change some of the variables and redo my sums, hoping to come up with a better solution. It generally just deteriorates from there.
While I’m hearing her, I’m not really listening, because I am working with my frame of reference, trying to fit her words into my perspective. I have learned (painfully slowly) that what I need to do is ask better questions at the outset so I understand what the purpose of our dialogue is. She, on the other hand, has realized that I am a little slow on the uptake and need these things spelled out. So instead of sharing everything and waiting for me to mess up, she outlines my role for me.
“I don’t need you to try to fix this…” has become one of her favorite phrases. It tells me what I’m meant to be doing and where she is coming from. “Can you understand how that makes me feel?” is another gem that gives me a chance to show empathy and move past trite answers to real intimacy. She breaks stride a little in order to allow me to keep up with where the conversation is going, and I make sure I do my best to keep pace. When we do it right, these are some of the most rewarding conversations we have. She speaks openly and I get the opportunity to really listen.
It’s not that us guys don’t want to listen. We really do; we just often don’t know how. What we need is some help recognizing what the words mean rather than what they say. When we understand where you are coming from, we can meet you there more easily, and much more readily. In fact, if you are willing to speak a little slower, I’m pretty sure we will get it in the end.