Ellen had a benign lump removed from her breast. Right after the surgery, she talked to her sister. Ellen said she was upset because the surgeon had cut her, and that she found it hard to look at the stitches and scar. “It looks like my breast has a different shape now, it looks so unpleasant.” Her sister answered: “I understand what you mean, I felt the same way after my surgery.” A friend of Ellen’s, who she told the same thing, said: “I understand, it’s like your body has been desecrated.” When Ellen told her husband Paul how she felt, his reaction was: “Why don’t you consider plastic surgery? It will make the scar less visible and might restore the shape of your breast.”

Feeling comforted

Ellen felt comforted by her sister and her friend, but not by her husband. In fact, she felt the opposite – it only served to make her more upset. She didn’t hear what she wanted to hear: that he understood her feelings. Even worse: he asked her to undergo another operation, when she’d just told him how horrible she’d found that. “I don’t want more surgery!”, Ellen protested, “I’m sorry you think it doesn’t look good!” Paul felt hurt and confused by Ellen’s reaction. “I don’t care what it looks like,” he said, “it doesn’t bother me at all!” “Then why did you tell me I should consider plastic surgery?” Ellen asked. “Because you said YOU were upset about what it looks like!” answered Paul.

Understanding vs. advice

Ellen wanted understanding and Paul gave her advice. He played the role of a problem-solver, something many men do, when she only wanted him to show understanding for her feelings. This example shows why men often get frustrated when their well-intentioned attempt to solve their partner’s problem is met with anger and rejection. “What’s the point of carrying on talking about the problem if you can just solve it?” men think.

Sense of connection

Women communicate mainly to establish a connection and intimacy. They’re taught to do so from a young age, by other women in their immediate surroundings. Talking about problems gives women a sense of connection: “we are the same, you’re not alone.” If women receive advice, as men often do amongst themselves, they feel distance: “we are not the same, YOU have the problems, and I have the solutions.” Men are likely to give advice because they communicate mainly for status/hierarchy and independence. They’re taught to do so from a young age as well, by other men in their environment.

Understanding each other’s reactions

Knowing that men and women use different styles of communication ensures more understanding of each other’s reactions. That way, women can show appreciation for the solutions their partners provide. Men could take some time to listen to their partners before offering a solution to the problem, and instead say: “I understand what you mean.”

Source: You just don’t understand – Deborah Tannen