I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part IV. How He Communicates
Chapter 10. The Silent Partner
My son, Tim, speaks fluent Spanish. He’s been involved in restaurant management since graduating from college, and his first exposure to the language was while working in a restaurant kitchen. When he started managing a restaurant in San Diego, all of his workers were Hispanic. He learned the conversational basics because he needed to communicate with them.
He cared about them and wanted to understand their culture as well as their language. So he left that job and moved to Mexico for about six months to take intensive language immersion classes. There he learned proper structure and usage so he would have a solid foundation to build on.
After the classes ended, he stayed for a few more months and did volunteer maintenance work at a Christian conference center. That gave him a chance to live among the people and speak their language every day. That experience enabled him to become fluent.
We decided to start learning Spanish when Tim fell in love with Lucy, a girl he met at that conference center and married five years later. The wedding was in Guadalajara, so we wanted to be able to communicate with her family and friends when we went. We bought Spanish language CDs and began to listen.
We learned a few words and phrases, and it gave us the chance to connect with our new family members. It was a great start and enabled us to communicate at the most basic level. It probably gave them a few chuckles as well. But we’re definitely not fluent.
Tim is fluent in Spanish because he lived among people who spoke it and now he speaks with his restaurant staff every day. We’ve only listened to CDs, so it hasn’t become part of us. I asked a bilingual friend once, “How do you know that you’re fluent in another language?” He said, “When you dream in that language.”
Communicating with the Deaf
When it comes to communicating with men, it often feels like you’re speaking a foreign language. You say one thing and they hear something else. You try to connect with each other, but “connect” turns into “disconnect.”
Men and women care about each other, so they want to find a solution to a problem that has come up. Because of the way their brains work, they choose different paths to find it. Women tend to talk toward a solution, using words to figure out what’s happening. Men tend to think toward a solution, often going silent because they don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to respond to their woman’s questions, so they just stop talking.
Both people want a solution but approach it in different ways. If they don’t understand those differences, they both end up frustrated.
We’ve heard of the man who is the “strong, silent type.” Old western movie stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood fit that stereotype. They didn’t say much but their strong presence and actions provided a mystique that sent women swooning in theaters.
While a woman may be attracted by that quiet strength, she’s often disappointed as the relationship progresses. “He never talks to me,” she says. “He won’t let me in.”
Silence becomes a default language for many men. For some, it’s occasional. For others, it has become a pattern. For everyone, silence stops communication in its tracks. When we don’t know what the other person is thinking, we tend to fill in the blanks from our own perspective. We assume they’re thinking the same thing we’re thinking.
They’re not thinking the same thing.
If a woman is going to communicate effectively with a man, she needs to become bilingual. She needs to learn the language of silence, and how to connect with her man when he uses it.
Why Men Stop Talking
There are reasons why men tend to go silent. Some of those reasons are intentional, while others happen without him realizing it. Not all of them are rational, but they’re real.
He doesn’t know how to respond. When a woman asks a man what he’s thinking about a situation, he might not have thought through it yet. If it happened earlier, his mind has probably moved on to something else—so it’s off his radar. He feels the pressure to come up with a response but doesn’t know what to say.
Since his brain focuses on fewer things at a time, he has trouble keeping up. He doesn’t want to appear incompetent, so he just stops talking. Over time it becomes his coping strategy and turns into his default setting. It means he’s run out of options.
He feels attacked. When a man feels pressured to say something but doesn’t know what to say, he feels like he’s the prey in a big game hunt. He feels like the woman has the weapons and he’s naked and defenseless. That’s the opposite of how his mind works, since he’s wired for winning and success. In this case, silence becomes a mask for his fear.
He’s an introvert. We’ll talk about this more in the next chapter. While introverts tend to think deeply, they can’t do it out loud. They take in information and then need time to think about it alone. Once they’ve processed, they can share their thoughts. Trying to rush their thinking is as futile as expecting a car to run without gas.
He doesn’t connect information quickly. Because of the combination of connective brain tissue and higher estrogen levels, women can “build a case” more quickly around any issue. They have access to their memory in a way that allows them to combine experiences to make their point. Men sometimes feel intimidated or helpless because they can’t come up with responses that are as sophisticated or as quick. So they simply shut down as a defense.
He’s been taught that “silent” means “masculine.” Men have been conditioned by the media that showing feelings and talking about them isn’t masculine. It also comes from peers growing up, where friends made fun of him if he shared too much. So when he gets into a relationship with a woman, he’s afraid the woman won’t like him if he isn’t masculine. He shuts up to keep that from happening.
He needs to win, and silence helps. If a man feels like he’s not going to be successful in a conversation with a woman, he’ll go quiet to avoid defeat. It seems irrational because the woman might not even know they’re in a battle. He doesn’t either, and he’s not trying to “beat” you in the discussion. He needs to feel that the outcome of the dialogue is a win-win situation where he feels successful at the end.
He wants to respect you. In a relationship, most men want to show respect to a woman. If they were taught that growing up, it’s the filter they work from (though some men were brought up with a different filter). Even if there’s anger in a conversation, they still want to treat a woman with respect. That’s tough if he feels pressure to explain his position before he has thought it through, because he doesn’t want to say something impulsive he’ll later regret. So he goes quiet as a way of protecting the relationship.
He wants you to be happy. Everyone has heard the old line, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s an unfortunate stereotype that pictures an angry woman taking her emotions out on everyone around her while her man remains quiet. Men genuinely want to give their best for their woman.
He does want to make you happy—not out of fear of your response when you’re upset but because he genuinely cares about you. He wants his woman to know how deeply he’s affected by her moods. If she’s not happy, he’s not happy. Silence becomes an unknowing strategy to avoid pain. If he doesn’t talk, he won’t risk upsetting her. It’s often inappropriate, but common.
Being silent has become a habit. When he doesn’t have other resources, a man scrambles to find whatever solution works. If silence is the solution that works on a regular basis, he doesn’t just choose it anymore … it has become a habit.
Learning to Speak Male
If you speak to me in English but I only speak Spanish, I won’t understand what you’re trying to communicate. Even if I want to, I can’t—because I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. I can’t tell if you’re giving me information, asking questions, or seeking input. I’m confused. So, what do I do? I remain silent.
My silence doesn’t mean I’m being obstinate or irrational or stubborn or that I’m “just being a man.” I simply don’t understand what you’re saying. If you try to read into my motives, you’re making assumptions about my silence—and those assumptions are probably wrong.
If we want to connect, there are only two options:
1. I can learn English.
2. You can learn Spanish.
Sure, it would be nice if I would learn English, and it would be easier to converse with you. But as a male, I think it sounds like a lot of work. I’d have to be convinced that the payoff would be worth the effort.
This sounds unfair, because my relationship with you should be enough motivation, right? Why should you have to be the one who becomes bilingual?
But if you learn even a few phrases in Spanish, we can begin to connect. I’ll enjoy that connection and recognize its value. As a result, I’ll be much more inclined to pick up my English CDs and begin the process myself. In other words, I’ll get motivated if you take the first step.
It’s a guy thing.
Besides taking that initiative, there are other things that can make bilingual communication easier. For example, it’s important to know that men aren’t wired to remember details about a conversation they’ve had. Women get together for an hour and know each other’s tastes in decorating, background, child-rearing philosophies, and hobbies. Men spend four hours together driving to the river and back, and spend two nights in the same tent, and can’t remember anything they talked about.
Men share experiences, not words. That’s their language. That means that it’s more natural to express their love and care for their woman by doing things for her rather than telling her. He might express his feelings for her, but not as often as she might like.
We talked about this in an earlier chapter, but it’s worth repeating. Knowing that men express their care in actions more than words, a woman needs to be a keen observer of the things he does for her. If he brings her tea in bed or washes her car on a Saturday morning to surprise her, she needs to recognize that it’s his way of saying, “I love you.” An appropriate response (that makes him want to repeat that action in the future) is to respond in the same appreciative way she would if he had formed the actual words.
Cross-cultural communication involves being intentional in conversation. If you want to connect with your man in a language he can understand, here are a few “grammar” tips.
Men usually take more time to process information than women, since women’s brains are wired to make multiple connections quickly. Men tend to have more of a single-focus approach, and you’ll lose him quickly if you go too fast.
Remember that when a man doesn’t respond right away, it doesn’t mean he’s disengaged. In fact, it might even mean that he’s more engaged and is taking the time to listen carefully and process before responding. Give him the freedom to take more time to put his thoughts into words than it would take you to do the same.
If you find yourself feeling impatient because of his slow response time, pause and give him space. Don’t fill the silence; just wait for him to speak. That silence can feel like a vacuum, so you need to resist the pressure to fill the void too quickly.
You might think, Yes, but that takes a lot more time. That’s true. One of the biggest relationship killers is when people try to rush their conversations. Being efficient with people almost always slows down the process of connection. Real trust is built in real relationships, and real relationships take time to grow. Deep, meaningful relationships develop in a crockpot, not a microwave.
Rushing a relationship is like expecting a toddler to do calculus. It’s not that he’s incapable; there’s a learning curve, so it will just take him a while to get there.
Don’t try to fix his silence issues when emotions are high.
Logic and emotion go together like oil and water. When you’re in a discussion where emotions are high, it’s the wrong time to try to address the deeper issues in a relationship. Those strong feelings rob us of our ability to be objective, and we end up saying things we regret or making accusations that break down real communication. It’s not just a “guy thing” or a “woman thing.” It’s a relationship thing.
If your house is on fire, it’s the wrong time to argue about who left the stove on. You might win the argument, but you’ll lose the house. Deal with the crisis at hand and talk about its causes later.
If your man is frustrating you with his silence, forcing him to respond will usually just escalate the problem. A more effective approach would be to acknowledge how his silence is impacting you and suggesting a neutral time to explore his reasons for it.
You could say, “You know, I’m really frustrated right now because we’re trying to work through this issue and I feel like you’re not participating. It’s important to me, and I want to know what you’re thinking.” That approach is honest, and you’re demonstrating the respect he needs. You’re not accusing him; you’re just telling him what you’re feeling and letting him know you value his thoughts.
If you want to explore his thinking, do so in a way that works for him instead of just for you. Don’t say, “Can we sit down and talk about this sometime?” To him, that feels like he’s being called into the principal’s office. Instead, say, “Can we go to Starbucks (or someplace else he really likes to go) and talk about this sometime?” That keeps the conversation on a more casual plane and feels a lot less threatening. You’re going somewhere that he enjoys, which makes him feel “liked” and respected. In that setting, there’s a much better chance he’ll open up about why he goes silent during your conversations.
When he tells you what he’s thinking, just listen. Don’t become defensive or probe beyond where he takes it. Let him talk. If he doesn’t feel pressured, he’ll give you some valuable information. Don’t try to get everything at once. Let him share a little, then go back to Starbucks a few weeks later for another round. You’ve just made it safe for him, which is exactly what he needs to share his thoughts.
Give him permission to postpone.
This is an extension of the previous suggestion. You won’t make much progress by forcing him to respond immediately. During one of those neutral Starbucks conversations, let him know you recognize his need to process. Then decide on a way to let that happen that will work for both of you and will allow you to reconnect later.
One couple I know have agreed that when he doesn’t know what to say, he simply says, “thirty minutes” or “one hour.” She agrees to postpone the discussion for that time period, and he promises they will come back to it. It works for both of them because it meets both of their needs. They’ve also found that during this break, emotions dissipate and their discussion becomes more respectful.
Another version would be to postpone the discussion for a few days. You could say, “I know you need time to think, and it’s really important to me that we don’t let this slide. Can we revisit this in a couple of days after you’ve had a chance to think it through?” It still might not be comfortable for him, but you’re approaching him in a way that respects him and his needs.
Ask for what you want.
Men are wired to find solutions to problems. If you’re looking for a solution, ask him directly what he thinks you should do (he’ll love that). If you’re just bouncing around ideas and need to think through them aloud, tell him so. “I’d like your input on something,” you could say. “I need to think through some options I have on this. Can you let me talk through them with you to help me sort out my thoughts? I’m not looking for a solution, but it would really help me if I could get your ideas.”
That approach meets his drive to be needed and respected without jumping to a quick solution. Once you’ve talked, you might ask for his input about the best solution if it feels appropriate. You might actually want to hear it because he took time to listen instead of just “fix.”
Don’t ask him what he feels. Ask him what he thinks.
He knows how to answer the second question, but not the first. You’ll get the same information, but you’ve presented it in his language.
Learn to Listen to the Silence
One of the biggest frustrations women have is when their man won’t talk. It’s easy to feel like a man is being stubborn and uncommunicative and to begin to see him through that lens. That’s why the stereotype has grown out of proportion.
The solution isn’t to try to get men to talk more. It’s to become a student of their language and communication styles, and capitalize on that uniqueness. If men are allowed to process information in a male way instead of feeling obligated to speak in a female way, they have the potential to be the best communicators ever.
They’ll become the strong, silent type who knows how to connect to a woman’s heart.