I remember the first time I learned this principle – courtesy of Alison Armstrong. In delivering her “Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women” seminar, she gave a distinctive and visual metaphor to describe how men should deal with a woman who is venting.
Alison holds out her arms into a hula hoop sized ring in front of her body… “This is a toilet,” she says. “Your job, as a man, is just to hold her hair and rub her back as she vomits her story into your toilet. As long as she’s speaking, you just hold her hair back. That’s all you’re expected to do. That’s all we WANT you to do.”
In my experience, she’s absolutely right: women do want men to listen silently and unconditionally to them as they speak. Don’t interrupt. Don’t offer advice. Don’t do anything, guys. Just listen. It’s cathartic to her and it makes her feel connected to you.
But, beyond the surface benefits of feeling better, does she LEARN anything from these good “conversations”? Probably not. It’s hard to learn anything if you’re doing all the talking. What a venting woman gets out of it is the illusion of a kindred spirit – the person who nods and understands and tells her exactly what she wants to hear: nothing.
“This is a toilet,” she says. “Your job, as a man, is just to hold her hair and rub her back as she vomits her story into your toilet.”
This isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. It’s what supportive girlfriends are for. The reason I’m bringing this up is because we guys have no idea how to handle such conversations. I just got off the phone with a friend who was listening to his sister vent about relationship issues for an hour on the phone. He told me he didn’t say anything the entire time, didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing, didn’t know even why they were having this conversation – since it was the same exact conversation they’d been having for months. Yet, at the end of the call, she told him that she felt better. Even though he didn’t speak. Even though she didn’t learn anything. Even though she’s going to suffer from the exact same relationship issues and be on the phone with him again in three weeks.
My advice to him – in the likely event that she comes back for more “dialogue” – is to listen to her until she’s done, and then ASK her if she’s open to hearing his thoughts. By getting her permission after a venting session, she knows he’s fully “heard” her and that he has nothing but her interests at heart. And if she doesn’t want to hear his thoughts, then that says a lot about what she sees her friends for: blank sounding boards designed to tell her what she wants to hear, as opposed to what she needs to hear.
Men are fixers. Men are problem solvers. Asking us to not do what we do naturally is a tall order.
We’ll listen to you, all right, but please know that the only reason we give you advice is because we CARE and want to HELP. In other words, we see ourselves as Good Samaritans. Unfortunately, you seem to want us to be Innocent Bystanders.