This short video always makes me laugh. So, if you haven’t already, take approximately two minutes out of your day and view the video above.
Back already? Good.
Now, why did I want you to view that?
Wow! Lots of hands shot up.
Oookayyy. Let’s see. You there. On the second row.
“Because it gets our attention.”
“That’s true. But, not the whole reason. Why else would I want you to view that?”
“Because it shows how stupid women can be sometimes.”
“No. That’s not ….”
“Or maybe it’s to illustrate how men view women, you chauvinist pig.”
“Okay, maybe we should just…”
“It’s not chauvinist to just to want to solve the problem.”
“Um… guys? Could we just take a…”
“No, it’s chauvinist to make us look so stupid.”
“Yeah. We don’t need you to solve anything! BUT we do need you understand how we feel.”
“Feelings! Feelings! Feelings! When will you EVER look at the facts!”
“Oh my God!!! Would both of you please STOP!”
. . . .
Now, eyes back up here for a moment. I did not have you view the video to illustrate that men are insensitive jerks. Nor did I have you view it to show that women are idiotic bimbos.
But when you are talking about communication between the sexes, sometimes hyperbole is the best teaching tool. And this video excels at that. It illustrates to perfection the frustration that many men experience during a conflict with their spouse. They love their wife. They do, really. And they think that the most loving thing they can do for their wife is to solve their problem. After all, a man will not approach another person with a problem, unless he has exhausted all possible solutions first. If nothing he thinks of works, then a man begins looking for answers in places other than himself. Thus, when his wife talks to him about something that she is going through or struggling with, he often (falsely) assumes that she is only doing so because she has failed to solve it on her own. She wants his insight. She needs his insight. The most loving thing, then, that he can do is… solve her problem.
Unfortunately, this rarely feels like love to a woman.
I learned this the hard way when my wife and I were dating. At the time I was getting my Masters degree and was working at a local inpatient psychiatric hospital as a “Psych Tech,” which is really just a fancy p.c. way of saying “gopher.” I wasn’t licensed, yet, as a professional counselor, so I was the guy who got the meals, assisted the nursing staff with watching the patients, helped intervene in patient conflicts, escorted patients to/from places, and monitored patient behavior. Most of my work was done on an adolescent unit where hormones, depression, and uncooperativeness mixed together into a pubescent melting pot. And by the end of almost a year, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about what would and would not work with teenagers. (As the father of two teenage boys now, I look back on my younger self and laugh. But, hey, that’s hubris for you)
At the time, my wife worked in a similar environment: public high school.
Once, after an extremely difficult day as a teacher, she called me. Being the attentive, loving boyfriend that I was, I quietly took in all of her information. I analyzed her problem. I synthesized it with things I had encountered from my job, what I had learned in school, and personal experience, then, after she was done explaining her problem, I said something brilliant like, “Well, when we face situations like that at the hospital, we just…. maybe you should try something like that.”
And then, silence fell across the line.
It was not stunned silence. She was not reveling in the genius of my suggestion. Somehow I knew, between the slow ticks of the clock, that I was not being placed on some pedestal inside her mind. Instead, I had stepped into a swamp of quicksand, and I was sinking — fast.
Honestly, I didn’t know where I had gone wrong. Everything I had said had been on point. The psychological knowledge was sound. Many professional people had verified the tactics in the lab and in real life. How could any of what I said be viewed as bad?
For a second I thought she had hung up.
“Are you there,” I asked.
“Then, um, what’s wrong?”
By then we had been dating for over five years. We had survived a long distance relationship for two of those years, and we fully understood where the relationship was headed. The masks were off. But still she mustered as much love as she could and said something I will never forget.
“Mark,” she said, “I have a 150 IQ. I taught myself to read when I was 3 years old. I speak three languages fluently. I had a double major in college, AND I have been doing my job now for two years. I don’t need you to solve my problems. I just need you to listen.”
Immediately, I understood two things.
First, my shoulders were firmly pinned to the mat. This was game, set, and match.
Second, a new paradigm for conflict resolution had been established in our relationship, and from now on this would always, always, ALWAYS be rule #1 when in conflict with my wife: Don’t solve. Just listen.
Unfortunately, I only thought I knew what listening was. Turns out I was wrong.
At that time, I listened in a manner most consistent with binary code. It was a series of 1’s and 0’s strung together to relay and exchange information. It was centered around facts, had little (if anything) to do with feelings, and was used to move toward a logical conclusion of some kind. In other words, it was mostly a passive, intellectual activity.
But when I tried to apply my form of “listening” in the weeks and months that followed, my frustration mounted. I was smart enough to realize that she wanted more than a philosophical approach to conflict, but I did not know how to provide this. She was coming to me with her problems, so she appeared to need my help; but she had made it clear that, in fact, she did not. So, each time I tried to abide by these new rules the message “Error 404 – Page Not Found” came onscreen in my brain.
Like the guy in the video, I knew the right answers were things like, “Gee, that must be really . . . hard,” but inside I was wondering when we could move on to the practical discussion of the issues. I can’t prove it, but I believe she knew I was fumbling my way through these talks. I was trying. That counted for something. But it didn’t remove the urge I had to pull that proverbial nail out of her head.
Around the same time I received a “request” from one of my professors to meet with him in his office after classes. I had no idea what this was all about, but it felt ominous all the same.
I arrived on time, and for about an hour he gently laid out his concerns to me.
“You don’t realize your doing this,” he said, “but you are psychologically distancing yourself from your peers.”
He was right. I had no idea I was doing it. In fact, I had no idea what he was talking about. As far as I knew, I got along with everyone.
“You are acting as if you know more than students who are a year or two ahead of you in the program,” he continued. “And it is causing your peers to dislike you.”
When I asked for clarification, he specifically noted that when my level 1 class observed level 3 students the other day on closed circuit video conduct a counseling session, I asked questions during the Q&A that sounded like I knew more than them (when in fact I did not) and came across as quite aggressive.
I briefly explained that my B.A. was in Journalism. I was trained to interview people. And before the level 3’s came into the Q&A, we had been told to interview them about their strategies, thinking, etc. for their counseling session. So, I turned on the interview skills, pointed questions and all.
“Be that as it may,” he said, “you need to learn to be more diplomatic.”
For the next few minutes he described to me how to implement a technique known as “the one down position.” In short, it was an intentional practice I needed to use whereby I placed myself in the role of a student to another’s perspective. For instance, instead of saying “Why did you do ___?” (which puts me psychologically above them, in a position of authority or interrogation), I needed to say, “Help me understand ___.” This puts myself intentionally below them, as if I am learning, and does not come across as aggressively.
Like all truth, it hurt to be told I was being a jerk to my fellow students, and I used his advice effectively to heal my relationship with others. But what my professor did not know was that he had just given me a great tool on how to relate to the woman I loved.
The “one down position” in communication was the key, I realized, to “Don’t solve; just listen.” In other words, if she was venting about a stressful situation, my job was to be a student to her perspective. I was to explore the various avenues and aspects of her situation with her, focusing first on how it affected her emotions, and following up with a variation on what my professor had said: “How can I help you?”
This technique quickly produced amazing results between us, making “How can I help you?” rule #2 in conflict with my wife. It was much gentler than “Why did you do that?” or “What you need to do is….” Instead, “How can I help you?” suggested that I was here to serve her. To care for her. And if there was genuinely nothing I could do to fix it, then I needed to realize that letting her vent her emotions about it was actually the answer to the question I was posing.
Listening, as it turned out, was helpful to her. Nine times out of ten she had already resolved the problem. What she needed was to share her struggles and triumphs with someone who loves and supports her. Listening was what she needed, not solution. (Who knew?) At times, I may have still felt powerless that I couldn’t fix it for her, but I had to understand that that was my issue, not hers.
For years, I used the rule of “Don’t solve; just listen” and the one down technique to help resolve issues with my wife. An unexpected result of using these basic guidelines, however, was that I became less invested in persuading her and more interested in joining with her against whatever problems we faced. I learned that we were on a team together, but for me to “win” an argument, I would have to intentionally place my “teammate” in a losing position. That, of course, is not loving.
I also began to see that if I objectified the problem, instead of personalizing it, we could more easily work together towards a resolution. I began viewing problems and conflicts as potential dangers to our relationship. For example, if my wife and I were attacked in a park, we would join forces to ward off the attacker. We would never take the attitude of “I just have to run faster than you.” We would protect each other, fight for each other, and ensure each other’s safety. If we took similar approaches to conflicts, joining forces against the problem(s) in such a way that each other was protected and defended and safe, then we could solve things much quicker.
If I followed the logic:
I don’t like problems.
I get rid of problems as soon as I can.
My wife is my problem
Then, the only logical conclusion is I have to get rid of my wife!
Geez! That’s a little severe, don’t you think? But as I learned to objectify my problems and join forces with my spouse, as if we were warding off an attacker, we learned to work with each other and to solve our problems.
Gradually, the logic changed to (for example):
I don’t like problems in my life.
I get rid of problems as soon as I can.
Poor financial management is our problem.
Therefore, we have to learn to manage our finances better.
Obviously, this works a lot better because we were working together, and it created rule #3: focus on issues, not individuals.
Finally, after successfully using the three basic rules of “Don’t solve; just listen,” “How can I help you?”, and “Focus on issues, not individuals,” a template for conflict resolution evolved in my mind. It is a series of six basic questions that I use to guide me through the conflict, and it has rarely failed to help us, or any of the people I have taught this to.
The six questions are simple and easy to implement. Just remember to use the three above rules as your unbending principles surrounding these questions. Also, when using these six questions remember to start with your spouse and do questions 1-3. Then, when that is successfully accomplished, they need to do questions 1-3 with you. At that point you will probably realize y’all have a minimum of 2 problems to resolve.
In fact, that’s normal.
Now, just take one of those problems (usually it helps to defer to your partner to begin the process) and do questions 4-6 together. It’s that simple.
So, what are the six questions?
- What is the problem from my partner’s point of view?
- How does my partner feel about this problem?
- How did I contribute to this problem? (Remember to ask for forgiveness)
- How do we (as a couple) want it to be?
- How do I help my partner solve their problem?
- How do we (as a couple) keep this problem from reoccurring?