Just Listen

One of the most common pieces of relationship advice you will hear is men being advised not to try and 'solve' a woman's feelings, but to simply listen. Why is that?


If you’ve ever heard anyone say anything about the emotional differences between men and women, it almost certainly will have included the advice to men that women often just want to be listened to. When a woman shares something about how she is feeling, the difficulties of her day, and so on, she is usually hoping her man will simply listen, be caring and attentive and show interest in what she has to say.

The man is advised that he shouldn’t try to ‘solve her feelings’. Just listen.

It seems that everyone involved in relationship and marriage education and counselling has this advice as the first topic in ‘Relationships 101’. Well, let’s start there too.

Two Different Scenarios

Both men and women are inclined to think that their own way of relating is the norm, and that the other must surely be basically the same. Why then are they so different? The problem in this instance is commonly portrayed as coming from men’s desire to solve problems. When they hear a woman talking about negative feelings they want to help by coming up with a solution. We need to look a bit more deeply at what is going on here.

We can first note two different situations. In the first the woman wants to talk about some situation involving negative feelings. In the second, the things she wants to talk about are not particularly negative or positive, just a bunch of stuff she is mulling over. A man’s reaction will tend to be different in each case.

Negative Feelings

It is in the case of negative feelings that a man is more likely to go into problem-solving mode. Men see such feelings merely as symptoms. You feel bad because there is some cause. You don’t focus on ‘solving the feeling’ but on solving the cause. So if a man told another man he was feeling down because he was unemployed, the other would focus on how he might be able to find a job. He wouldn’t accept the situation as if the problem was the feeling itself.

For men, negative feelings are perceived as an aberration, an intrusion into how life should be. So they focus on trying to get rid of them, not how to live with them.

By contrast women tend to accept that negative feelings are an inescapable part of life, and they look for ways to lighten the load by sharing it. They are more likely to look for ways to deal with the feeling itself than to focus on getting rid of it altogether. Such feelings are just part of the ‘stuff of life’. Women mostly get such help from other women in sharing the load of feelings. Other women are much more likely than men to ‘get’ this way of approaching things. So when a woman tries to get such support from her man she often finds that he doesn’t ‘get’ that there is a whole other way of dealing with feelings.

General Life Stuff

In the case where there are no particular problems or negativity, a woman nevertheless wants to talk about her everyday feelings as a way of sharing them. Men don’t think of feelings as the kind of thing you would or even could talk about. They deal with them interiorly, they think them over, they sift through them and allow them to come to an interior equilibrium. They are not sure how anyone else could be part of that process or why that would be necessary.

So when a man hears a woman talking about that kind of thing he initially thinks there must be some problem, so he pays attention to try and find out what it is. But as time goes on he can’t identify any point to what she is saying. That is, he can’t see where he comes into the picture.

He is thinking – why is she telling me all this stuff?

Why doesn’t she just think about it herself, I mean, it’s not that interesting, it’s just a whole lot of everyday stuff?

Men are not as used to talking as a kind of 'thinking out loud' about everyday things. They are more likely to keep that sort of thing to themselves. When they do talk with other men as a relaxed way of passing the time you can observe that the kind of topics they discuss are not the everyday 'what I did today' kind of things. They will usually talk about sport, politics, hobbies and general interests.

The Easier Part

The simplest part of all this to understand is that men and women will tend to have different fields of interest, as will different individuals. The solution then is simply give-and-take. If you are in a relationship you have to to commit to paying attention to things your partner is interested in, even if you are not interested in them yourself. You show interest because your partner finds it interesting, and that is your primary motivation.

However, if you only approach this as a chore done for the sake of love it will be harder to maintain, despite your intentions.

It is best if possible to try and also find something in the other's interest that could also hold some intrinsic interest to you.

It doesn't mean you have to become a fan, and it would be unfair to expect your partner to do that. Nevertheless, there are ways of finding some interest in most things if you try.

The Harder Part

The harder part to understand is the way the other sex tends to process emotion. Even if it is hard to understand, a woman needs to accept that a man will usually process his feelings interiorly. This is not avoidance or denial, but is simply the way that works best for him. A man might find it hard to understand, but needs to accept that a woman will usually want to process her feelings through conversation.

The difficulty arises of course because of the mismatch about expectations of time spent together. There is an asymmetry. A man expects to deal with his feelings on his own, and having put that time in can then be unwilling to have to put in a similar amount of time helping his partner deal with her feelings. It seems like he has to put in twice as much time as she does on these things.

The first way a woman can take this into account is to talk with other women, so that she is not dependent only on her partner to talk things through with. Nevertheless, when it comes to matters specific to the two of them she will still need to talk with him about them. Not only that, it is her main normal means of fostering her feelings of connection with him. A man needs to recognise this and realise that his commitment to the relationship means he is also committed to spending this time with his partner.

Just Listening Is OK

A man needs to learn that just listening to his partner as she talks over all sorts of things is OK. Realising that she does not expect him to 'solve' her emotions can take a load off him. Otherwise he will tend to feel as though spending such time with his partner is another chore for which he is responsible. It is this feeling of responsibility and onerousness that weighs on men. If a man can come to understand that it's often OK just to listen, he can relax and be happier just to spend time with his partner in this way.