It’s no secret that men like to play the handyman. Even if actual handyman skills aren’t our thing, there are few things we like better than when a woman gives us a problem we can solve for her. Trouble is, when it comes to life’s tribulations, sometimes all a woman really wants is for her man to listen—and that can be hard to wrap our minds around.
As the stereotypical situation goes, a woman wants to talk and hopes that her man can listen and empathize. But before she can finish her sentence, he has half a dozen pieces of advice and ways to solve the problem. This usually leads to tension in the conversation, and both parties become irritated with each other.
Why does he insist on fixing things? Why can’t he just listen?
Why does she insist on talking about the problem? What will that accomplish?
I know I’m not going to fix this age-old dilemma, try as I might. But for the sake of a little perspective, I would like to offer some insight as to why Mr. Fix It has a really hard time letting go and just listening.
We’re Showing Care and Concern
A man giving advice and offering solutions is a way for him to show that he cares. It may well be that you’re just looking for a sounding board, but know that his intentions are good even if they frustrate you.
Take a look at how any man or woman spends their time. Whether it is work, sports, friends, TV, video games, or social media, where and how they spend their time really shows you where their priorities and gifts are. So if your guy is spending time trying to fix whatever is troubling you, then he is letting you know (consciously or subconsciously) that you are a priority. It may sound strange, but when a man takes the time to offer advice—even if that is not what you want at that moment—it is a kind of compliment.
Men Literally Listen Differently
In one sense, both men and women are trying to fix things, but we just come at it from different angles.
You see, studies have found that men and women activate different activity centers when listening. The evidence suggests that the problem-solving areas of the brain are more active for men when they try to listen, whereas the more relational and networking areas of the brain are active for women.
Other studies have tried to map the matter within those different areas of the brain. Men have a heavier reliance on “gray matter” when listening, which aids them in “localizing tasks” (aka fixing things). This means that men tend to focus primarily on the information required to successfully complete a task or solve a problem. Women, on the other hand, have an increased level of “white matter” (ten times more than men, in fact), which allows for “integrating and assimilating,” a function that is known to aid language skills. So it would make sense that, for women, the presence of someone listening empathetically and not just trying to fix the issue can be a very helpful approach to a problem.
You can see that the mistake, and where much of the frustration takes place, is when men assume that women necessarily want the problem solved the same way men do.
According to audiologist Beth McCormick, more research is needed to definitively link processing differences between the sexes and communication styles, but she jokes that while men and women clearly have different communication styles, such a link would make relationships much easier:
“If you find yourself becoming annoyed that your husband minimizes the emotional details of your story in favor of focusing on solving the problem you presented him with, you could theoretically blame it on his increased gray matter or his left temporal lobe. And husbands, if you find yourself losing your patience as your wife talks incessantly about seemingly insignificant details, you could blame her white matter or both sides of her temporal lobe rather than blaming her directly.”
Certainly, we cannot use the wiring of our brains as cop-outs, but we also cannot ignore that it seems to have an impact on how some men and women naturally communicate.
It’s Always Good to Offer a Little Direction
Understanding the differences between and tendencies of men and women is one thing. Putting practical communication skills into practice is another.
While “just listening” may seem counterintuitive for most men, be assured that we are indeed willing to do it if we understand that it is what you want. A very wise friend of mine once gave me a great piece of advice for communicating with my future wife (and yes, I know that one day when I meet her, she will probably remind me of this article): When the two of you talk, he said, whether you say it to yourself or out loud, always ask, “Is this an opportunity for me to fix something or to listen?”
If you suspect that your man isn’t self-calibrating like this, it might be helpful to find a way to let him know that you need him to listen. You can even speak his own language by letting him know that in your mind, him lending an ear is a form of fixing the situation.
If he slips up and starts trying to give advice, show your appreciation, and then gently remind him how helpful an empathetic listener is. Try saying something like: “Thank you. I know you want to give me advice because you care, but it helps me so much when you listen and I know you are listening.”
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that “just listening” is not something your guy “should just know” you need. As natural as listening may be to you, the man in your life will need you to explain where you are coming from on this one.
So . . . I can’t help but ask. Did I fix it?
Photo Credit: Brittni Willie Photography