Friday, July 22, 2011

All the fixin's

photo: by comedy_nose

I have been hesitant to write this post because it seems like trite advice you can find in any relationship self-help book, but I'm going ahead because it keeps coming up in my office. 

A woman has just told me about something difficult in her life.

Me: "Have you told your boyfriend/husband/partner about this?"
Woman: "I tried, but he doesn't get it. He tries to tell me how to fix the situation, but it only makes me feel worse."

(Note: To keep the language simple, and because guys are more often fixers that girls, I am making the guy the fixer in this post. Please note that any gender can try to fix, and any gender can just want to be heard.)

Guys, when your woman is upset, your go-to move should be to listen. Not fix. Get her. Understand. Convey that you understand. If you don't understand ask questions until you do. Don't fix. At least not until she feels understood.

Here is how you do this:

1. Get out of your head. Your head will try to find a problem and offer a solution. Do this by concentrating on your breathing and by putting as much of your attention on her - her words and her body language - as possible. 

2. Listen closely to what she says and what her body language is telling you. Get the feeling behind it. Is she sad, angry, overwhelmed? 

3. Let her know you get what she is saying and more importantly how she is feeling. Do this with words, (ie, "That sounds like your co-worker was really mean to you. No wonder you feel so hurt.")

4. If you don't get it, either the content of the story or the feeling, ask. Just say, "wait, there is a part I don't understand..." Or, "how did you feel when that happened?"). It is also good to ask, "Is there more?" to offer her a chance to get it all out. Make sure your questions are without an agenda beyond understanding.

5. If it is not obvious she feels understood, ask if she feels like you are getting it. Be patient. People don't always communicate clearly when they are upset. Also remember it's most important that you get how she feels.

6. If you really can't understand where she is coming from - and this is most likely to happen if she is upset with you - then do your best to let her have her experience. Just accept that she is feeling something you don't get right now, and give her space to have her feelings. Let her know that you are ok with how she feels.

Note: It is much harder to do this when she is upset at you for something, but that is when this skill is most important.

Women, if your man is not good at listening and getting you and instead he tries to fix the problem (and you are not looking for fixing), you can coach your man. Tell him you don't want him to fix the problem. Tell him just to listen and to try to understand you and your feelings. 

Be patient. Most guys are fixers by nature, especially guys who are problem solvers in their professional life, and they haven't had any training in just listening. Cut them some slack if they relapse and try to fix. Reiterate as kindly as you can that you just want him to listen.


  1. This is good advice. But what if your spouse is complaining about some situation with someone else, like a work situation, and it is clear that your spouse is doing the same dysfunctional stuff with the third party that they do at home with me or the kids? And, oh yeah, they are oblivious to this.

  2. Yeah, okay, but my wife is one of those people (and I think females do this more than males, but, hey, I'm just sayin')who can't get to the point. Seriously, she cannot ever summarize something and tell you the essence, the bottom line. Instead, she tells every bit of all the concrete details of the story with all this emotion. Patience of Job to do what you are saying to do.

  3. Sounds like you are frustrated with your spouse. The thing is, when they are upset, it is unlikely they are going to be able to hear you. So, even if you think he or she is causing the problem, it is best to use the listening skills I outlined above.

    Once your spouse feels heard, there is a greater likelihood they will be able to hear your feedback. Or maybe your concerns are best brought up at another time, you have to be the judge of that.

    In any case, when you do tell your spouse your thoughts/feelings, I would not use the word "dysfunctional". Try to describe their behavior with as little judgement as possible and tell them how it makes you feel when they do that.

    The thing that can happen in a relationship is both people have issues with their partner, and neither can really listen to the other person. If your situation has reached this kind of impasse, and you have tried your best to work it out together, I suggest you look into couples therapy. Better to nip a problem in the bud before it grows bigger.

  4. Sorry your wife is wordy anonymous. If she is straying all over the map, and you find your attention wandering, try to get the main point and most importantly what she is feeling. As long as you get these two things and she gets that you get them, that should be enough to have her feel supported and connected to you.

  5. This is very helpful. I tend to be a "fixer" and have come to realize that that is not necessarily what my child, spouse, friend is looking for. I also like your comment about asking "is there anything more?" that is a comment from a real listener, I suppose.

  6. Thanks Anonymous. Yeah most of the time peeps just want to feel like someone is with them. Even in therapy, fixing can be a dicey endeavor. I think fixing is only called for when the person who is hurting really wants that and consents to it.

    As for the "is there anything more line?" that was actually the suggestion of my friend who sometimes edits my posts, so I give credit and thanks to her. She is a real listener.