I don’t like to promote (directly or indirectly) the stereotypes in the popular culture about how men and women communicate differently. I approach communication style differences based on the individual, not the sex. Because I have addressed this in other posts, I won’t get into it here, except to say that looking at the interpersonal/intrapersonal axis offers a helpful perspective on what typically is seen as sex differences.
My purpose, here, is to explore a common occurrence in counseling men about the expression of feelings. Here’s how the typical conversation goes:
Client: I don’t seem to be in touch with my feelings. When my wife asks me how I feel, I can’t seem to say anything. She can say how she feels anytime you ask her. I guess I never learned how to identify or talk about my feelings when I was a kid. Sometimes I think maybe I don’t have any feelings.
Me: You seem pretty down about this.
Client: Yeah, I really am. I don’t know what to do about it. My wife’s about had it with me. And I guess I don’t blame her.
Me: Do you and your wife talk about stuff very much.
Client: Yeah, pretty much. We talk about work, the kids, whatever’s going on. But when she asks me how I’m feeling, I just seem to shut down. I guess I need to figure out why I do that, right? My wife says lots of men are like this. Is that so?
Me: Well, I’ve talked to many men about this very thing. It can be very confusing. So, what do you go through when your wife expresses her dissatisfaction about all of this?
Client: I get this tightness in my chest and sometimes it feels like my hands are shaking, although they really aren’t. I guess I’m a failure at communication . . . and I don’t want my kids to be hurt by my lack of feelings.
Me: Do you get to spend much time with your kids?
Client: Not as much as I would like to. But I go to most all their events. I help with homework in the evenings, and we do family stuff on the weekends.
Me: Do you tell your kids that you love them and are you physically affectionate with them?
Client: My twelve-year-old boy always seems to be hugging me, and my ten-year-old daughter still sits in my lap, and we always say, “I love you.” Never did that with my dad, though.
Me: Being close with your kids is obviously important to you. You sound sad about your dad.
Client: Yeah, I am. I know he loves me but never heard him say it. Not once.
Me: What are you thinking when you say that?
Client: Well, I’m thinking that it really hurts when he won’t tell me he loves me.
Me: Sure it does.
It’s clear from the conversation that this man has plenty of feelings, is very aware of them, and can more than adequately express them. We need to remember that feelings are not words and words are not feelings. Feelings are experienced in the body. Words are descriptions. They’re just attempts to give abstract expression to our internal sensations. I never asked this man what he was feeling. I asked him to describe his experience, to tell me what he was going through, and I reflected (in words) the obvious feelings he was having.
Too often we get hung up on the belief that if someone can’t respond to the request, “How do you feel about this or that?” they must be out of touch with their feelings. But feelings can be expressed in many ways, and this man, for example, readily expressed how he felt about his family by responding to the affection shown by his children, by helping with homework in the evenings, by participating in regular family activities.
We do, however, sometimes need to have a direct discussion about feelings. When asking someone else about his or her feelings, it may be best to take the communication style approach and tap into the natural language of the individual. Here are some suggestions.
- What are you going through?
- Have you ever been through something like this before?
- What does the situation look like to you?
- What do you think might be going on here?
- Is there some word or phrase that captures the experience?
- Can you describe the sequence of events for what happened to you?
For some people (both men and women) it is hard to respond directly to a question about how they feel. Yet, by approaching the question from other angles corresponding to different communication styles, you have full access to the feelings of the other person. Also, you don’t need to know the specifics of the other person’s communication style to explore the above suggestions. Try one or two and see how it works.