Communication Skills — Getting Him to Open Up
January 01, 2020
By Bradley A. Post, LCSW, CADC with Chapin & Russell Associates
During my work with couples in marriage counseling, I sometimes find the woman does not realize that the clash between her articulate, assertive communication style and her husband’s difficulty giving voice to his feelings may be at the heart of many of their problems. She is certainly not the only wife to find herself in a conversational tango when trying to get her husband to communicate. If you can relate to this pattern in your marriage, here are some suggestions that might help your husband to express his feelings:
Understand the silences.
It can be hurtful and infuriating to try to talk to a man and feel as if you’re talking to the wall. But while women often find silence uncomfortable, men find solace in it. What’s more, we often read into a partner’s silence our own desires, fears, and past experiences. If your parents endured long icy periods when they were angry and didn’t speak, you may infer that your husband’s lack of response means he’s upset with you. His silence may simply mean he really has nothing particular on his mind. Similarly, a man whose father left the office behind when he walked in the door may believe it’s inappropriate to talk about business issues or problems at home. Many men have reported that they don’t tell their wives things because they don’t want to worry them. That protectiveness, however, may be misinterpreted as lack of interest. Also, when he talks to others but not to you, it may be because he views having to make conversation and relay factual information as work. At home, he wants to relax and that may mean sinking into his own thoughts.
Ask directly for what you need.
Men and women have different definitions of the word “communication.” Men problem-solve; often silently. They proceed directly from Step 1 (“Here’s the issue”) to Step 3 (“Do this”). Of course, you believe in Step 2: bouncing suggestions and possibilities around before coming to a solution. If your man is not the bouncing type, try presenting a specific agenda: “I’d like to talk about Jake’s terrible behavior lately” or “We need to figure out how we’re going to handle Amanda’s ballet practices during the school week.”
Phrase your questions to provoke responses.
“How was your day?” won’t jump-start a conversation. He may just say “fine” or “terrible.” “Tell me about your presentation to that new client” might engage him more fully.
Learn to argue constructively.
Many men are afraid to say anything because past experience has taught them that they’ll be criticized or blamed for past crimes and misdemeanors.
Give him the floor.
He may have learned to disengage as soon as you start talking, which makes you talk even more. Someone has to break the cycle; try counting to yourself if he’s silent, or give him a friendly look to encourage him to respond.
Appreciate the silences.
More likely than not, your spouse will never be as talkative as your best friend is. And you probably don’t want him to be, either. So learn to listen to the silence. When he takes you in his arms for a long hug, shares in a joyful whoop with you when your son scores his first hockey goal, or reaches for your hand as you ride in the car, he may be saying a great deal.
Pick the right moment.
You prefer talking when you get into bed because it’s the first time all day you can relax; your husband falls asleep the minute his head hits the pillow. You like chatting over morning coffee, his brain doesn’t get in gear until an hour later. Men often feel ambushed and tend to clam up unless they have a say in the timing of talks. They may also feel cornered when the whole agenda of your conversation is “the problem.” If you try raising issues while doing an activity (playing a computer game, cooking a special dinner, or gardening), the talk will flow more easily. Another tactic: Ask him to come to you when he’s more ready to talk. You might try saying: “We don’t have to discuss this right now, but I really want to understand what you’re thinking about our moving to a bigger house. Talk to me when you’re ready.”
It is my experience that most men respond positively to these approaches. However, there are times when that is not the case. Husbands who fail to respond to these suggestions in a positive manner may be struggling with issues that go beyond simple differences in communication styles. They may be experiencing symptoms of depression or have deeper unresolved problems that are interfering in their ability to communicate. Individual or couple’s counseling may be necessary to assess and determine the contributing factors to his difficulty expressing himself.
For more information about couple’s counseling contact Bradley A. Post, LCSW, CADC with Chapin & Russell Associates at 309-681-5850 or visit our website at www.chapinandrussell.com.
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