Can men and women ever really understand each other? I think that they can, but I also think it takes a great deal of effort on both sides. This effort is often squandered in dumb arguments that go nowhere or end up hurting the feelings of all involved.
I define “success” in communication as being able to achieve a resolution to an issue while addressing the resulting feelings on both sides. Some people really have this skill down to a science, while others need to practice a bit more. Some are great at it when they’re at work, only to struggle in their romantic partnerships. Over the years, I’ve noticed five things that men who are awesome communicators do in common to facilitate better relationships with the women in their lives.
Many people think that successful communication in relationships is about making themselves heard, but what successful communicators know is that listening is ultimately more important. If you have an issue with something your girlfriend does, rather than asking her not to do it, try asking her why she does it and listen to the answer. Alternately, if you’re the one with your head on the chopping block, listen to her tell you how your behavior makes her feel. When listening, indicate it by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head when you’ve understood something, and occasionally asking a clarifying question that does not derail the conversation. You don’t have to solve every last one of your relationship problems in one conversation, so focus on the issue.
2. Look for the Feelings Behind the Words
If you ever catch yourself in a position where you have no idea what you feel, you’re not alone. When communicating with a loved one, feelings run deep and they may be complex or contradictory. Have you ever experienced being angry with someone because you were worried about them, or sad because you are afraid for the future or confused when someone’s signals are actually loud and clear but you don’t like what they’re saying?
This is all part of the human experience: most people’s emotions are faster and more complex than their mental ability to articulate them. If you’re dealing with someone who is angry or sad or confused, look behind the emotion that they’re expressing for the ones they’re not. Ask for clarification rather than trying to tell them how they really feel, and respond to the emotion that is not being expressed rather than the one that is.
3. Rephrase What You Heard
If someone has just expressed to you an extremely complicated or emotionally loaded sentiment, clarify what you’re hearing by repeating it back to them. Sometimes people don’t know what they’re trying to say until they’re given a hand in this manner, and sometimes when people’s words are repeated back to them they realize that they are not communicating their true feelings or desires successfully. If you think you’ve heard someone out, make sure that you’ve truly understood them, and that they truly understand themselves, before you react to what they say.
4. Build on What You Heard
Once you’ve correctly established what another person wants you to know about how they feel, believe them that they feel that way, and respect it rather than trying to change their minds. Feelings aren’t about minds. If they were, humans would not run into so many communication issues. One key way to respect your partner after she has communicated something to you and you have repeated it back to her for clarification is to take her at her word. If she wants you to wash the dishes more often, don’t argue with her about why she wants that – she wants it.
Instead, build on the fact that she wants you to wash the dishes more often. This is the part where you address what you are going to do about this concern. Offer to make a schedule, or clarify further when she particularly needs you to be the one who does the dishes. Don’t get into your own feelings yet – save that for when a resolution about what the two of you are going to do about the issue has actually been established.
5. Adjust Your Behavior Accordingly
Here’s the thing – no amount of careful listening, paying attention, rephrasing what you heard, or building on what you heard is going to make an impact if your behavior isn’t adjusted. Your new behavior needs to reflect the resolutions that you’ve discussed and agreed upon. I can’t tell you how many arguments between men and women escalate when, after one party believes that communication has been successful and everything is settled, the other party continues doing exactly what they were doing before. This adjustment doesn’t have to be major to be appreciated.
Sometimes, a simple acknowledgment of each others’ feelings goes a long way. For example, if your live-in girlfriend has talked with you about how she would like you to pitch in with household work more often and a week later, the sink is full of dirty dishes again, acknowledge that you are aware that you could just as easily be washing them like her. Reference your earlier conversation. Even if you don’t jump right up to attack that dirty sink right away, she knows that you have heard her and have taken her feelings into account – something that is far more important to most women than who actually washes the dishes.