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Gentlemen Speak: The Best Ways to Understand (and Speak) a Guy’s Emotional Language

Men want to be understood just like women do.
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Photo Credit: Manchik Photography

Men and women might not be from different planets, but when it comes to speaking one another’s emotional language, we may as well be. Interpreting emotional cues is a constant source of struggle and consternation for those of us trying to have a meaningful connection with a member of the opposite sex.

I’ve heard countless women struggle with some version of the same sentiment: “Why doesnt he know that I dont want him to fix the problemI just want someone to listen!” Fair enough, ladies. But just as we struggle to understand how it is we can better serve your emotional needs, don’t forget that the table can be turned! Take it from a guy—men can get pretty frustrated when women don’t pick up on our emotional cues, too.

I know that women would love to know the secret code that unlocks a man’s heart. But, in the same way that women come with different personalities and strengths, so do the men in your life. If you find yourself struggling to connect with your boyfriend or husband, paying closer attention to these basic guidelines could be just the thing to help you bring out his emotional side.

Allow for Time-Outs

Sometimes a guy just might need to be alone. But silence and isolation are not necessarily about being upset or angry. When men are presented with emotions they do not understand, it can cause them to get stressed. According to Dr. Rick Nauert, when under stress, the male brain can begin to shut down, specifically the regions of the brain responsible for understanding one’s feelings.

To give your guy some time to process, take a time-out. For us men, a time-out is about reflection and problem solving. We are working things through and simply need time so that we can concentrate, understand the emotion, and figure out the next step. Think of a time-out as a sort of defense mechanism to give us space to work out whatever stress we’re experiencing. We are not necessarily running from the emotion; our brains just need more time to grapple with it.

Be prepared for a time-out, not from the relationship—as marital counselor Peter McFadden points out—but from the issue. This means that your man might need to retreat to his “man cave” or some stress-relieving outlet such as exercise, playing sports, working in the garage, or simply being alone for a bit. McFadden suggests setting him free to decompress with a clear timeline for when you will reconvene. Suggesting something like, “Hey, hun, why don’t you take some time. Want to meet back here to talk things over at 5 p.m.?” This approach is an important way to address your man’s needs and speak his emotional language.

Stand by His Side (Literally)

While it will take time, a man is more likely to open up when he feels safe and respected and knows that he won’t be judged or rejected when he does express his feelings. As the folks over at Fit Brain pointed out in their summary of male/female brain studies, men struggle to understand emotions in explicitly verbal ways.

This means that you might have to break down his emotional barriers with some simple nonverbal tricks. According to Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, marriage counselor and speaker specializing in male–female relationships, one way to help a man through his emotional process is to do stuff with him “shoulder-to-shoulder,” not always “face-to-face.” This could be pulling up a chair alongside him at the dinner table (instead of across from him), going for a walk together, doing the dishes, or just sitting by his side. Whatever it is, the key here is letting him think or talk in a stance that makes him feel supported rather then confronted. When he feels his companion standing beside him, especially if he is going through a tough time, it builds trust and will bring you closer together.

When a man’s girlfriend or wife remains beside him, respects him, and values his opinions and thoughts, he feels safe to share things that might be a bit more emotional. On the other hand, if he feels disrespected, nagged, or put down, he will not want to be vulnerable or even come close to sharing his feelings. He’ll retreat right back into his shell.

Be careful not to say anything that your man could take as an attack on his personality or character, as this will immensely hurt his feelings and make him retreat. In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, famed psychologist and marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman calls criticism one of the “four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse” (aka healthy-relationship killers). Using language such as “typical” to refer to our behavior or making generalizations such as “You always . . .” or “You never . . .” can make us feel attacked.

It can be helpful to suggest change in behavior or action, but demanding it will turn constructive feedback into force. Try posing a suggestion as a question—“What about telling your mother how you feel?”—rather than a demand—“Tell your mother how you feel.” A man loves to know that his significant other is “on his side” and willing to collaborate and work together, but any kind of threatening, condescension, demands, put-downs, or assumptions will put him immediately on the defensive and shut him down emotionally.

Problem Solve Through Action

As I noted above, men can often become silent not because they are upset but because they are simply trying to problem solve. Problem solving is one of the things we love the most; it gives us wonderful feelings of accomplishment and peace once a problem is fixed. Just as a woman often needs to off-load her feelings and talk about them, sometimes a man prefers to talk about facts and practical steps rather than how he is feeling. If you don’t believe me, just watch one of my all-time favorite YouTube videos, “It’s Not About the Nail.”

This urge to problem solve is partly due to how our brains are constructed, according to Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of the appropriately titled books The Female Brain and The Male Brain. Men and women, at times, tend to approach how they “fix” their emotions from different angles.

Because of the predominantly left-sided connections in the male brain, men are wired for logical action. This means that it takes us longer to transfer emotional data from one side of the brain to the other.

Brizendine goes so far as to say that men are not necessarily less emotional or empathetic. Rather, the system controlling empathy gets overridden rather quickly by the “fix-it” region of the brain. This has the result of making men more action-oriented and prone to problem solving rather than discussion.

The idea that talking will help seems so foreign to us. Don’t get me wrong, talking is extremely helpful when it comes to processing emotions, but it takes us a while to get there. Talking is not Step A or B for guys, it’s more like Step E or F further down the road.

Help us problem solve and come to a decision during an emotional dilemma. It would be good in these situations to steer clear of the all-too-scary questions such as, “How do you feel?” and “Do you want to talk about it?” One alternative is to ask, “Hey, why don’t we do this or that? Would that be helpful?” This makes the discussion action-oriented and less threatening. In the end, this will help him immensely in starting to process his present feelings—and eventually being ready to share them.

Be Aware of Roundabout Emotional Speak

Ladies, be patient with us. Even when we are ready to discuss our emotions, we might struggle to label them, and at times we can even mislabel them. This is all part of us processing emotional data.

It’s our own kind of roundabout emotional language. Rather than confronting our emotions directly, we might express them indirectly. In Dr. Barbara Markway’s Psychology Today article, “How to Crack the Code of Men’s Emotions,” she notes that men can often convert one feeling into another or express the emotion in a way that feels safe to them.

If we just received bad news, lost a job, or even lost a loved one, certain emotions can spill over and might become confused. We might express anger or frustration when really we’re either feeling sad because someone we love died or like a failure because we lost our job.

At this point, suggestions rather than directives are most helpful. Instead of saying, “You are just feeling sad,” ask something like, “Do you think this has made you feel more sad or angry?”

If you find that your man can’t simply sit down and talk about it, it’s likely because he is not entirely sure what he is feeling yet. Give him time. Forcing it out could make it worse, and he might end up feeling more frustrated trying to process feelings he doesn’t yet know how to articulate.

Engage and Affirm

When we do talk, however brief it might be, we will need positive reinforcement. Simple body language such as nodding, smiling (if appropriate to the situation), a consoling pat on the arm or back, or some affirming words can work wonders for us. A woman’s reaction will speak volumes to us, allowing us to either open up or making us feel like shutting down.

The opposite is also true. We don’t want to upset, worry, or make angry the women in our lives. So on the rare occasions that we do discuss our emotions, adverse reactions to what we share can lead us to not want to share in the future. If someone criticizes our attempts at problem solving, it can make us feel hurt and unappreciated, says Dr. Shawn T. Smith, author of The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond to what we share, but certain reactions might cause us to bottle up our feelings in order to avoid conflict in the relationship. Criticism, interruption, repeating the same points over and over again, sour facial expressions, heavy sighs, and a negative tone of voice will make us feel like our vulnerability isn’t being well-received. There are many ways to offer positive reinforcement. Build us up when we share, hear us out and listen, validate our feelings, focus on the positives, and communicate your support nonverbally through body language and facial expression.

Men and women both want to be understood and loved. Furthermore, your man really does want to connect with you, even when it doesn’t seem like it. There’s no simple solution to men and their emotions, but with a little elbow grease—and lots of patience—you can figure us out. We appreciate it, I promise!