Should I Listen or Should I Try to Fix It?

There's a very funny video making the rounds that brings up the age old question that every man must face. When my wife is sharing her problems, do I just listen or do I try to fix it? The video illustrates that the answer is often that we need to do both. 

The nail scenario above suggests that the man should fix it (and that his wife should let him). But she's not having any of it. This is standard operating procedures for imperfect and normal families like ours. However, there are critical lessons for both husbands and wives to learn.

Mainly husbands.

Husbands have to face the reality that, in many cases, the problem is not the problem. Instead, how she feels about the problem is the real issue. In "For Men Only," Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn put it this way: "When your wife is sharing an emotional problem, what she is feeling about the problem is actually more important to her than the problem itself." They go on to give the following piece of advice: "Instead of filtering out her emotions to focus on the problem, learn to filter out the problem in order to focus on her feelings."

Every man reads that previous sentence and thinks, "That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. If something is making you feel bad, then you should resolve the problem and presto, the bad feelings go away." Unfortunately, fellas, about half of the population (the half whose special parts are on the inside of their bodies) don't think that way. We would be wise to learn that.

A husband needs to realize that only after he has listened with compassion, communicated some empathy, and truly validated his wife's feelings will she be ready to address a solution to her problem. Or maybe she won't. It may be that talking it out will give her all the peace and clarity she needs to move forward.

In his mind he did nothing to help her, but from her perspective, his simple gift of listening meant the world.  

The issue gets complicated when the root of the emotional problem the wife is sharing was caused by the husband. His tendency will usually be to get defensive and try to clarify what and why he did or didn't do. He will try to logically explain why she is wrong for feeling what she is feeling. Unfortunately, a man's attempts to clearly and logically communicate why she misunderstood his intentions are usually interpreted as, "You are an idiot for feeling what you are feeling." He doesn't say that, but that is what she often hears. (If you don't believe me, fellas, just ask your wife.)

Digging in your heels and dying on the high ground of your logic and good intentions is rarely productive. It usually ruins communication and undermines trust.  

So what's the solution for a man whose wife is experiencing complex and heavy emotions? Take time to listen...carefully. Be curious. And interested. Ask good questions. Offer empathy. Try to gain some real understanding. Dis-engaged from your bone-headed maleness for just a minute and channel a bit of compassion. (I often ask God, "What would Jenifer's friend Kim do and say right now?")

Only after she knows you have taken time to listen and care will she begin to truly seek a solution to her problems. Only after you have humbly owned up to whatever you did to hurt her will she consider your perspective. But maybe she won't. It may be one of those moments when you have to ask the question: "Do I want to be right, or do we want to be one?" Maybe it's not about the nail after all.

But one final word to the ladies: sometimes it is about the nail.

Sometimes you have to trust your husbands (who are hopefully extraordinary listeners) to let them provide real and clear solutions to your family's problems. Guys usually have excellent problem solving skills and you should take advantage of them.  

One gift a wife can give her husband is a heads-up before a big conversation. Tell him your expectations: "For the next few minutes, I just need you to listen." Or, "I have a problem that I want to work through with you. I need you to help me to find a solution." If your man knows what you expect from the beginning, he is more apt to give you what you need.  

For most issues, there will be a little bit of both. What I have learned is that taking time to listen at the front end usually makes for a better solution for both of us at the back end.  

"Father, help us all to learn to listen to one another far better than we currently do."