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 11. Conflict without Combat
The internet is filled with quotes about anger.
Telling an angry person to calm down is like trying to baptize a cat.
Never go to bed angry; stay up and plot your revenge.
You think I’m cute when I’m angry? Well, get ready—because I’m about to be gorgeous.
Anger is the feeling that makes your mouth work faster than your mind.
Most of these quotes are clever but don’t provide much in the way of solutions—not that we expect them to. More surprising is the fact that there hasn’t been a lot of research about handling conflict in relationships—at least not in comparison to all the other relationship topics.
That’s unfortunate, because it’s a universal issue. We’ve all experienced it in ourselves and others. When it happens in a relationship we deeply care about, we need some tools to sort it all out.
Hanging out with an angry person can be exhausting. There’s a lot of energy around them, and it can be draining. If we’re trying to engage in conversation with them, it wears us out. After a while we feel the need to step away from the emotion and “chill.”
If it’s a man who’s angry, it can be even more challenging. Women are making all of these mental connections because of how their brains are wired, and they’re trying to look at all the dynamics involved. Men use that single-focus aspect of their brain to see an irritating situation for what it is—irritating. They don’t usually analyze what the offending person is doing or saying; they just get upset and assume the person needs to get their act together.
Someone offered this pithy summary of a man’s typical response to anger: “I wouldn’t have to manage my anger if people could learn to manage their stupidity.” If someone upsets them, they simply assume the other person is the problem.
We all get angry. It’s a human emotion, and we’re all human. So when someone says, “Oh, don’t get so angry,” they’re really saying, “Oh, stop being so human.”
When anger happens in a relationship, it’s usually the product of conflict. Two people have different opinions about something. If it’s important enough, they try to work it out. But if both people think they’re right, they don’t want the other person’s opinion. Instead, they feel obligated to convince the other person that they’re wrong and need to change. The result? Somebody gets angry.
Conflict isn’t a bad thing unless it pushes two people apart. When that happens, anger grows and barriers are built over time. But in its simplest form, conflict happens when two people grow together. If they’re committed to the relationship, healthy conflict is a strategy for growth.
By that definition, a relationship without conflict is a stagnant relationship. Someone said that if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary. It’s not a matter of figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s a process of drawing from those differences and looking for creative solutions that gain from the best of each person’s perspective.
It’s conflict without combat.
Different Approaches to Conflict
Darrel is fighting with his wife, Connie, over a bottle of salad dressing. She’d asked him if he needed anything at the store, and he’d said, “Ranch dressing.” She brought home a bottle of “light” dressing instead of the “real” thing. She figured it would be the same but save calories.
“Are you crazy?” he yelled. “That’s not ranch dressing. It tastes like chemicals. If I had wanted fake ranch dressing, I would have asked for fake ranch dressing.” She was hurt because she was just trying to keep them healthy. He was upset because she didn’t do what he expected.
First he was yelling. Then he went silent and disappeared to watch a game on TV. She tried to get him to talk about it, but he was too angry to respond. They had come to a communication impasse—over salad dressing.
She doesn’t know what to do, so she calls her best friend, Linda, and discusses the situation. Linda listens and says, “Let me send Matt over to talk to him. They like to hang out—maybe he can get him to talk.”
Matt tells Linda, “Are you crazy? Not a chance. That’s their problem, not ours. Let it go.”
It’s a good example of what the research shows: men and women respond differently to conflict. Women use their connective brain tissue to come up with a number of strategies for resolving conflict. If they can’t figure out how to get their man engaged in solving the issue, they’ll go to friends for support and conversation. They’re always thinking about how another person is feeling, so they feel driven to work it out as quickly as possible. When her man won’t cooperate, she feels a sense of despair.
A man often feels powerless in a conflict with a woman, because he doesn’t have as many “weapons” for the battle. She’s making different connections to find solutions, and presents them one after the other. With his single focus, he doesn’t have that many options and doesn’t feel adequate to compete at her level. His brain is focused more on winning and status, so he defaults to strong emotion as his primary weapon.
While we’ve all experienced the different ways men and women handle conflict, there has never been any definitive proof that one way is better than another. They’re just different. Avoiding conflict isn’t the issue, because it’s the foundation for growth in a relationship. When a couple can’t talk about issues together, they both become more dissatisfied with their relationship.
The real issue is learning how to communicate during conflict in a way that attacks the issue instead of each other. If two people can learn to work together toward that end, they have the potential to build communication skills that can handle the toughest situations.
No one ever looks good trying to make the other person look bad. Relationships are about working together, not pulling apart.
Finding a Model for Understanding Men during Conflict
“He’s just being a guy. That’s just the way they are.”
It’s a common way to stereotype men. That perspective assumes that:
1. All men share certain characteristics.
2. Those characteristics are negative.
3. Women just have to live with those negative characteristics, because men are stubborn and won’t change.
It’s true that it’s tough for anyone to change. But lumping all men under the same umbrella robs women of the ability to find their man’s uniqueness and build on it.
Over the years, researchers have developed different models to sort people out in an attempt to understand them better. These models use descriptions, colors, animals, and other examples to label these approaches. Most of them can be beneficial when applied in different situations.
As I researched this chapter, I tried to decide which model would provide the most value for women as they try to understand men. Though different ones were helpful, I didn’t find any that worked well across the board. I decided a better approach was to look at two different models, which use simple observations about men that could help women the most during conflict.
One has to do with the way a man responds, while the other deals with his basic temperament. Mixing and matching these categories won’t provide absolute answers, and they aren’t designed to understand everything there is to know about men. They are specifically related to the different ways men handle conflict situations.
Two Different Responding Styles
First, let’s look at how men respond. One consistent pattern I saw in the research was that most men tend to be driven by either anger or fear in the way they respond to different situations. Men who are driven by anger encounter a frustrating situation and their level of emotional energy begins to rise. They have a mindset that naturally moves them forward, toward those tough conversations. They don’t back down, and their desire to conquer is stimulated. Emotional energy increases and provides the fuel for their thinking and responding.
Men who are driven by fear when encountering the same situation also experience an increase in their level of emotional energy. But it’s a different kind of energy, moving them away from the conflict. It puts them in a defensive mindset instead of an offensive mindset, and they worry about all the bad things that could result from this dialogue. It’s pessimistic. They avoid conflict, so it’s easier for them to back off because it’s too uncomfortable. They focus on fear of the negative possibilities, and that focus turns inward.
Angry people move forward into conflict. Fearful people move backward away from conflict.
Two Different Temperament Styles
At the same time, there are two different temperament styles that apply: introverts and extroverts. I’ve written about these in previous books, because temperament style is such a simple way to understand someone’s motivations for what they do.
“Introverted” isn’t the same as “shy.” I’m an introvert, but a noisy one. I talk for a living and am surrounded by people all day, every day. But when I’m around people, I’m using up energy. I enjoy being with them but find myself running out of steam the longer we’re talking. At a certain point, I have to pull away by myself to recharge. Introverts gain energy when they’re alone and exercise it when they’re with people.
Extroverts can be either outgoing or quiet, but they recharge when they’re with others. They gain energy by being with people and lose energy if they spend too much time alone. They process their ideas by talking about them aloud, while introverts process their ideas when they’re alone. To state it simply, introverts think before speaking, and extroverts think by speaking.
Extroverts often have trouble understanding the reflective nature of an introvert, and think they would get along much better in relationships if they could just be “healed” of their quiet approach. Introverts don’t just prefer to process alone; it’s the only way they can do it.
Put an introvert and an extrovert together in a relationship, and it provides some challenging dynamics. Learning to respect and value the other person’s temperament is one of the most important tasks for anyone who wants a successful relationship. For women, it’s one of the quickest ways to understand and connect with a man on his own terms.
Combine the two response styles and the two temperaments, and we can design a four-box grid of broad categories:
1. Anger-driven extroverts
2. Fear-driven extroverts
3. Anger-driven introverts
4. Fear-driven introverts
It’s almost impossible to put a man squarely in the middle of any one quadrant. This isn’t a scientific model to compete with others that are already out there. It’s just a simple tool to help guide our thinking as we determine a man’s motives and how to deal with them.
1. Anger-driven extroverts
These men can come across as aggressive and assertive. A woman can feel attacked by this combination, because it’s forceful and direct. This describes a man who moves toward the conflict, not backing down from his position. He’s often not a good listener because he’s spending so much time talking. It can be frustrating dealing with him because he seems more concerned about being right than being connected.
Extroverts think by talking. That doesn’t mean he firmly believes what he’s saying. He might, but it’s more likely that he’s experimenting with ideas aloud. It’s important to avoid feeling intimidated by him, which is easier to do when you recognize what’s really going on. You won’t change that combination, but you can work with it by understanding him. Realize that what he’s saying firmly right now might not be the bottom line of his final decision and could change tomorrow.
Since he’s thinking aloud, engage with him and ask questions about what he’s saying. Don’t react strongly to his thinking because it’s still in formation. Your questions of exploration will help him shape his thinking.
2. Fear-driven extroverts
These men can seem like they’re saying, “The sky is falling!” because of their approach. They’re rehearsing everything that could possibly go wrong and could easily spiral downward into negative patterns of thinking. It’s easy for a woman to become a rescuer in this situation because she’s worried about his downward-spiraling, irrational thoughts.
In this case, his thoughts are being formed as he speaks. They haven’t been shaped over time. They’re impulsive ideas or even dreams that are expressed the moment they form in his head, and he might state them as though he’s committed to whatever he said. Be careful not to let him drag you down emotionally, and don’t immediately use logic to counter his arguments when he’s feeling that strong emotion. That type of approach focuses on issues instead of relationship and drives him to think of more reasons to justify his thinking.
Listen empathetically, and focus more on what he’s feeling and expressing than on sorting out the validity of what he’s saying. Skip the actual issues until a more neutral time, and just say, “It sounds like you’re really feeling concerned about this whole thing … am I right?”
3. Anger-driven introverts
These men need space to think. They can feel deep emotion during a conflict but haven’t figured out what to say yet. The primary emotion they display is often frustration, which is frequently expressed as an irritated silence. Their anger drives them to deal with the situation, but they’re frustrated because their thoughts don’t make sense to them yet. Their feelings are real, but they don’t know how to put them into words while the conflict is taking place. If you try to talk them through those feelings or ideas too quickly, they can get even more frustrated.
Acknowledge the frustration without trying to push for a response. Let him know that you recognize how strongly he’s feeling and give him space to think. “I can tell you’re really frustrated,” you could say, “and you really have some strong feelings about this. I’d love to know what you’re thinking, but I’m guessing you probably need some time to process it all. Is that right?”
That approach makes him feel safe, both in what he’s feeling and in not knowing what he’s thinking. It gives him permission to process without pressure. When he’s feeling that safety, it’s fair to ask him to share after he’s had time to process. “Can we talk some more about this tonight after you’ve had a chance to think through the whole thing? I really value your perspective, and it would mean a lot to deal with this together.”
4. Fear-driven introverts
These men can be tough to deal with unless you know what’s happening. He turns inward, so you don’t have the visible signs to sort through. Since he doesn’t like conflict, he tends to avoid it. He doesn’t want to fight with you, and bringing up his feelings might risk conflict. So he figures he needs to deal with it alone instead of facing the issue together. Picture a turtle pulling his head back into his shell for protection.
Remember: he hasn’t had time to process his thoughts. If you press for information before he’s ready, he’ll withdraw. From your perspective, it might look like he’s disengaging and doesn’t care. That can be frustrating because you feel like nothing will happen without you forcing it to happen. There’s no input coming from his side.
In reality, there’s plenty of energy. It’s just turned inward instead of outward. Your best approach is to recognize what’s happening, then provide an environment that feels safe to him. He needs to feel that you’re not trying to take control of his behavior but rather reassuring him of your respect and partnership. “I can tell this is important to you, and you probably need time to sort it out, right?” you could say. “I know that usually helps you clarify what you’re thinking. Just remember you don’t have to fix this alone. We’re a team. How about if we both take some time to think through the whole thing, then grill some steaks and go for a walk after dinner to compare notes?”
Strategies for Solid Connection
These aren’t foolproof descriptions and techniques that will automatically resolve every conflict you have in your relationship with your man. They’re designed to help you be intentional as you interact. Your heart enables you to be empathic, which is priceless. Your head enables you to lead with your man’s language instead of your emotions during a conflict situation.
It’s easy to be reactive when your man responds differently than you during conflict. But if you become a student of that man, conflict can become a trigger for you to respond to the reality of who he is. Learn his uniqueness and focus on working together on issues instead of on each other.
The key to communicating with a man during conflict? Be intentional about leading with your head, not your emotions. If you lead with your heart, you’ll mess with his head. If you lead with your head, you’ll speak to his heart.
Men are wired for winning, but it doesn’t have to be at your expense. “Win-win” can be just as satisfying to them as “I win.” Deep inside, men want to be there for you. He entered a relationship with you because he values you. He wants you to win, but not if it means that he loses. If you respect the drive he has to win, he’ll join you in the journey.
Here are a few simple strategies that provide safety for a man during conflict:
Don’t back him into a corner and force him to express what he’s feeling. Give him space to process and he’ll usually let you in.
Be concise when talking during conflict. If there are too many words, a man feels overwhelmed and can’t focus. He feels like he’s in a foxhole and there are shots being fired from every direction. If that happens, he won’t let you in his foxhole.
Use “I” messages when you’re sharing your thoughts rather than “you” messages. Saying, “You always clam up when we talk” makes a man feel attacked. “When our conversation stops I feel frustrated” is more accurate and keeps him off the defensive. Instead of saying, “You just don’t get it, do you?” say, “I wish I could express this more clearly.”
Be careful not to imply that he is wrong. Focus on what is wrong. He might be wrong, but will never admit it if he’s accused.
Don’t multitask during conflict. You can probably clean the kitchen while you’re working through a tough issue with your man, but he’ll feel like you’re distracted. His simple wiring that focuses on one thing at a time might mean that he needs your eye contact. If you’re not sure, ask him if it would be helpful if you just sat and connected.
At the same time, most men don’t do well just sitting and having a “serious” conversation. It’s safer if he’s doing something like walking with you or going out for dessert. Sometimes he’ll express his thoughts more easily when you’re walking together because it’s active—and he doesn’t have to look you directly in the eye. Taking a drive together often accomplishes the same result.
Watch his eye contact. Extroverts tend to make good eye contact when they’re talking but poor eye contact when they’re listening (so it looks like they’re not listening). Introverts are the opposite; they make great eye contact when listening but tend to look everywhere else when they’re talking.
Don’t start tough conversations with something critical, like “You never listen and we need to talk about it.” Instead, bring up an issue in a way that assumes you want to handle it as a team. “I’d like your input on something,” you could start. “Could I tell you what I’m thinking, and get your thoughts? If I can hear what you’re thinking, I think we can figure something out that will work for both of us.”
Conflict marks a new stage of growth. It’s not something to be avoided; we just need to understand what’s happening with each other and make it a safe environment for healthy dialogue.
Always go for mutual benefit. It might seem like he wants to win at all costs. If that’s happening, it’s because you’re approaching conflict as individuals—trying to determine who is right and who is wrong. Decide which battles are worth fighting and which ones you can agree to disagree about. For the real ones, always look for solutions that will satisfy both of you.
When you learn the skill of having conflict without resorting to combat, you’re building a foundation for the rest of your relationship.