I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Introduction. Talking into Thin Air
You’re driving somewhere with your man. It’s about dinnertime and you’ve had a long, exhausting day. You’re thinking it would be nice to stop somewhere for dinner instead of having to go home and find the energy to prepare something (even if he helps).
So you say, “Would you like to stop for dinner someplace?”
He replies, “Not really.”
Based on the differences between how men and women tend to process information, you might be hurt by his response. Doesn’t he care about how tough my day was? Why is he being so inconsiderate? Why does he get to decide what we do?
It’s possible that your interpretation is accurate. Maybe he doesn’t care and he is inconsiderate. But more likely he didn’t realize what was behind your words. He heard a question asking his input, so he shared an honest response. Maybe he’s equally exhausted and wants to retreat to the safety of home instead of fighting a crowded restaurant. Or maybe he’s a little concerned about finances and feels like it would be better to save money.
You feel like he should understand what you need and want. He feels like he answered your question so there is no need to explain things. Same words, different interpretation. The rest of the evening can become tense because of unspoken expectations and emotions.
It’s a language barrier—two people using the same words but not connecting. If we assume that the other person shares our exact meaning and understanding, we’re setting ourselves up for frustration.
Age or position doesn’t matter:
Teenage girls begin dating without any understanding of how guys think. All they know is what they observe from experience. So they think they understand and wonder why it’s so challenging.
A new manager comes in and his actions seem to contradict what he says. But you can’t challenge the boss, right? So all you can do is try to figure him out.
Newlyweds learn quickly that their new spouse doesn’t fit the image they expected and wonder what happened after the ceremony ended.
Moms wonder why their sons are so radically different from their daughters and how to make sense of their perspective—especially during their teen years.
When you want to develop a new skill, you take courses, read books, or attend seminars to learn new perspectives. If you want to improve your communication skills with men, it’s worth the investment of time and energy to make it happen.
It’s time to begin that journey.
I’m a morning person. I generally wake up before sunrise, and I’m fully awake within about five minutes. Give me a cup of coffee to start my day, and I’m at my freshest. I’m mentally at my best. By 9:00 at night I have trouble forming multisyllable words or walking upright. When my head hits the pillow, I’m usually asleep in seconds.
My wife, Diane, tends to be a night person. Her job often gets her up early by necessity, so she’s learned to function in the morning. But she naturally operates best later in the day or early evening. It often takes her a lot longer to go to sleep because her mind hasn’t settled down yet.
We discovered the problem about two weeks into our marriage. We had settled into bed for the evening, and I was dropping off to sleep when I heard the four words that men dread: “We need to talk.”
For her, it was a logical time. She had been thinking about an issue all day long. As a young husband I panicked because I didn’t want her to think I didn’t care. So I told myself, Don’t fall asleep … don’t fall asleep … while she described the situation. She assumed that her new, caring husband would be happy to talk through the issue. I really was interested, and I really did care. She kept talking, and I kept dropping off.
She was talking into thin air.
We had to do some damage control after that. But because of it, we realized that we’re different. Part of it is the morning/night person scenario, but it’s more than that. There are real differences between us, just because she’s a woman and I’m a man.
Those differences can cause some challenges in communication when we don’t understand them.
The Reality of Differences
“I don’t get it,” a friend told me. “I just don’t understand men.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“When we were dating,” she continued, “I was the most important thing in his life. He pursued me. He brought me flowers. He would call me for no reason. He left notes on my windshield while I was at work. He surprised me constantly, and he won my heart. So I married him.”
“Then what happened?”
“I found out where he got the flowers,” she said. “He would stop by the local cemetery and take them off of graves.”
“And that bothered you?”
“Of course!” she responded. “He acted like it was a wise, practical choice because the flowers had done their job, and they would just go to waste and get thrown away. I told him it was disgusting, but he just didn’t get it. He’s such a good man, and this seems so out of character. What was he thinking?”
That’s the big question: What is a man thinking?
The answer isn’t a simple one. The only thing we can say for sure is that what a man is thinking is different from what a woman is thinking. We can debate the topic all day, but we know from experience that men and women aren’t the same.
In the past few years, there has been a lot of emphasis on equality in the workplace. Women have never had the same opportunities as men, and legislation has opened those doors—and rightfully so.
But the transition has been challenging. The message came across as “men and women are the same.” It sounded good to minimize differences so everyone would be treated equally. Men and women would dress professionally and sit around a conference table and commit to treating each other with respect. The doors were open, and opportunity was available to everyone.
But then they started talking to each other. And the collective response was … “Huh?”
With the best of intentions, people try to make equality work. They want to treat working relationships, marriages, dating, and friendships with the respect they deserve. People care about each other and want to build the best into the lives of others.
But “equality” is different from “equal.” There are differences between men and women. The place it shows up most clearly is in how we communicate. Women can’t figure out men, and men can’t figure out women. The solution is not “fixing” those differences but rather understanding them.
We can legislate behavior. But trying to change the innate differences between men and women is like voting on which direction the sun moves across the sky. We can cast our vote, but we’ll still be frustrated if we picked the wrong direction.
There are plenty of books that debate gender roles and societal issues. This isn’t one of them. It’s simply a guide for women to understand, from a man, what goes on inside the male mind. The more a woman knows about what’s really happening in there, the easier it will be to use that knowledge to connect effectively with the men in her life.
I’ve talked to women who were frustrated because their attempts to connect were like trying to change a tire while their car was moving at sixty-five miles per hour. It wasn’t working. One friend said, “I thought it would be easy, because we have so much in common. But when we start talking, I feel like we’re speaking different languages. I wish he had come with instructions.”
There’s another issue here: every man is different, just as every woman is different. If we use a stereotype that says “all men are this way” and “all women are this way,” we’ll be in big trouble. I’ve read those kinds of books, and thought, Yeah, but that doesn’t sound like me. So there’s an important filter we need to apply as we begin this journey: everyone is unique.
There are some relevant generalities, but that’s where we’ll begin—recognizing that everyone is different. The ideas we talk about will be a starting point for discussion. In fact, you’ll probably find some good conversation starters from the things you discover. It’s a tool for exploration, not for slapping labels on the guys in your life.
Yes, it would be great if men came with instructions—but we don’t. Neither do women, or kids, or bosses, or neighbors, or in-laws. There are some generalities that apply to relationships with these people, but they only provide a starting place. We have to figure people out one by one.
Who Stole the Instructions?
One of my favorite photos is from when my first granddaughter, Averie, came home from the hospital. My daughter is holding her in the sink for her first bath, and my son-in-law is holding an instruction sheet from the hospital, trying to figure out how to do it. The bewildered look in their eyes seems to say, “So, what do we do with this kid?”
In the twelve years since that event, they’ve figured it out step-by-step, and Averie is turning out great. But I’m sure they’ve often wished they had instruction sheets for different stages of the journey.
Figuring out how to communicate with men is kind of like driving a car. Every car has brakes, a gas pedal, a steering wheel, headlights, and a place to put gas in. But sometimes things are in different places. I recently rented a car and couldn’t find the button to open the fuel door. Fortunately, the instruction manual was in the glove compartment, and I was able to look it up. (The button was in a totally random place and I never would have found it.)
If I follow the instructions for a car, I get predictable results. That doesn’t apply when it comes to people, because everyone is different. There are a lot of things that are consistent about men, but we can’t follow “one-size-fits-all” instructions and expect unfailing results. We can learn the basic skills of communication and relationships, but the process is dynamic and fluid.
This is not an instruction manual; it’s an understanding manual. You won’t get a list of absolutes or a process to follow that guarantees perfect communication with men. Instead, you’ll get a clear sense of what goes on in a man’s mind and how it’s different from what goes on in a woman’s mind. You’ll understand why men think the way they do, even if those differences don’t make complete sense to you.
My wife, Diane, pointed out that there are a lot of books written by men telling women what they should do. Even if the advice is sound, it’s written from a male perspective. It’s like a fish giving swimming lessons to a bird.
I agree, so I’m going to be cautious. My male mind can’t grasp how the female mind works. But I’ve studied those differences and learned how to appreciate and respect them and work with them. My goal isn’t to give canned answers, though I’ll share my ideas and observations. My primary objective is to walk with you as an interpreter or guide as you explore the landscape of the male mind.
I was leading a seminar once for the largest electric utility in California, and the director of safety was in the class. I asked him what his job consisted of. He said, “My job is to keep people from dying.” As I pressed further, he continued, “Electricity can kill people if you don’t respect it. So I make sure that people know what can happen and then make the right choices when they’re working with it. A couple of people die every year because they take it for granted.”
“Honestly,” he continued, “I don’t understand electricity. I have my degree in it, but I still have trouble grasping the concept of how it works. But I have the utmost respect for it, and I’ve learned how to work with it to get the best results. Our people don’t have to understand it completely, but they have to know how it works so they keep from getting hurt while capturing its power.”
I thought that was a great illustration. Women will never fully understand exactly how a man’s mind works because it’s outside of their frame of reference. But if they recognize what’s happening, they can use that level of respect to keep the relationship safe.
Understanding Men—A No-Brainer
A man’s brain is his control center. Everything he does and thinks comes from his brain. So if you want to know how to communicate with a man, you need to know what’s going on inside his brain. If you get the brain right, it explains everything else.
I can’t tell you what a specific man is thinking, but we can go on a tour of his brain. I’ll be your guide. We’ll stop at a number of “scenic lookout points,” and I’ll highlight the landmarks. I’ll point out the traps and danger zones, and where you might encounter quicksand and toxic waste. We’ll also climb the peaks to see the incredible view that you might miss if you’re stuck in the swamp.
When we’re finished, you’ll have a sense of what’s going on in a man’s mind. It will be different for each guy, but you’ll know what to look for. The trail will begin to feel more accessible. With a clearer perspective of the territory, you’ll be able to customize your communication so it becomes an effective way of building connection.
Communication—The Key to Connection
Women can’t just read a book about how men think and expect things to be different. That’s a starting place, but understanding needs to be put into practice through communication. If we can get our communication right, our relationships have a great chance of improving. If we don’t get our communication right, it’ll be hard to improve our relationships.
When men and women talk, they’re engaging in cross-cultural communication. Even though they might speak the same language, the words carry different meaning. He says, “I’m hungry.” She could think, He’s expecting me to fix him something. That might be true, but he could have been just stating a fact with no expectations. If either person makes assumptions about what the other person means, it can lead to tough conversations.
That’s true in any type of relationship, whether a marriage, family, employment, or friendship. Women are going to encounter men in every part of their lives. Women need to see men accurately, not as someone who needs to be repaired so he thinks the way she does. It’s not about change; it’s about connection.
How This Book Is Different
When I started my research, I studied what had already been written on this subject. I found resources on building relationships, strengthening marriages, and overcoming the sticking points that happen between people. A few of those books were written specifically about how to understand men. Most of them fit into one or more of these categories:
· They were written by women, based on their own experience with men.
· They were about male/female relationships rather than focusing just on the uniqueness of men.
· They were filled with advice, suggesting courses of action to take.
· They were based on opinion rather than research.
· They were research-based and felt like a psychological treatise.
Most of them offered great perspectives and added value for the reader. They met a specific need. The one thing I didn’t find was a simple, common-sense approach to understanding how a man thinks.
This book is a man’s attempt to “let you in.” I want to show you around the territory of a man’s mind. If you can learn the basics of how men operate, you’ll have a foundation for communicating effectively with the men in your life. Discovering a man’s uniqueness and perspective can take the mystery out of that communication.
When I told women I was writing this book, they usually shared a sense of relief: “That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.” When I told men I was writing it, there was an overwhelming sense of dread: “No! Don’t give away our secrets!”
This book isn’t designed to give either side an advantage. It’s a roadmap for conversational and relational success. It’s drawn from the research of others, as well as my own background. Not only have I lived in the male brain for a long, long time but I’ve also spent my career studying people in a variety of settings. I’ve been a college professor, a minister, a mentor, and a coach, and have taught over three thousand seminars as a corporate consultant. My doctorate is in higher and adult education, which is where I first learned the basics of how people think.
I don’t know everything there is to know about every man’s brain. My experience just means that I’ve had a bunch of opportunities to watch human behavior and interact with people, and I want to share those observations with you. I’m not asking you to agree with everything I say. My goal is to provide a glimpse into the mind of men so you can strengthen your relationships with them.
We’ll cover topics such as:
· What to look for during both high-stress and low-stress situations
· Why he won’t talk or let you in
· How men listen, and how it’s different from how women listen
· What he means by what he says
· The illusion of communication
· What’s behind his choices
· What a grown-up relationship looks like
· How his past has shaped his present
· What drives a man
· What he needs that only a woman can provide
· Why he can’t see dirt
· What his emotions look like
· How he cares
That’s where we’re headed. It’s a journey of understanding, and I’m eager to show you around. You probably picked up this book to understand your husband or boyfriend better, so that’s where we’ll focus. But you’ll be able to apply what you learn here to male bosses, friends, or relatives too.
So, let’s get started. We’re at the trailhead, and we’re ready for an adventure together.
Enjoy the journey!
WAIT—You Need to Sign a Waiver for the Trip
Before we move on, there’s an important disclaimer: this book is written with healthy males in mind.
Not all men are healthy. Some are controlling and selfish, and they have issues that are deeply embedded from early life experiences, trauma, or dysfunction.
Every man has moments where he acts irresponsible and self-centered. It’s not unique to men; we all do it. That’s usually where tough conversations surface, and this book will provide the tools and techniques needed to deal with those times.
When those toxic behaviors become the primary way a man operates, it’s a pattern that goes beyond the scope of this book. While taking this journey, you might find that the toxic sites in your man’s brain have flooded the landscape. If that’s the case, self-help books become ineffective. It’s time for a professional approach.
If I have a headache, I’ll take an aspirin. But if I have a heart attack, I need the expertise of a trained cardiologist. If I try to treat it myself, it could be fatal. This book is a guide for understanding a good, healthy man who is human and imperfect. That’s the scope of our mission and the foundation for our discussion.