Do You Want Advice or Do You Want Validation?

“Women don’t want advice. They just want you to listen.”

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.

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  1. 61

    @Evan Marc Katz — not shooting the messenger at all. And I’m not even opposed to change, but I’m not going to be the one making all the sacrifices and compromises just for the sake of maintaining a relationship. If I have to change, my man has to change too, that’s all I’m saying. If that’s unrealistic then I’m guilty.

  2. 62
    Evan Marc Katz

    It’s unrealistic.

    You. Can’t. Change. Men.

    You can change YOURSELF. Only MEN can change men.

  3. 63

    As I said, then I’m guilty. Not worth twisting myself into a pretzel for a man who expects me to accept him as is. P.S. Lots of things that “couldn’t be changed” have been. It just took sufficient resistance against the status quo to do it. Just ask anybody involved with the Tea Party.

  4. 64

    @Betty #60 Word. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  5. 65

    Two points:

    Sometimes people get angry when their solutions are not followed because you have just wasted their time by describing your problem and asking for their solution.

    For a guy, the default position for the toilet set is whatever it is for his use. Most guys will leave the seat down when they’re done with #2, and leave it up when they’re done with #1.

    If a woman borrows her boyfriend’s car, how often does she return the seat and the mirror positions to the “default” positions of where they were before she drove it?

    1. 65.1

      Good point…however, my man leaves the toilet seat down for me (for which I’m eternally appreciative) and washes my car for me (he’s so sweet!)…I make him a yummy sandwich and pour a cold beer for him when he’s typing away at his computer, working, and give him road bjs….it works out beautifully in the end…

  6. 66

    @65: The women I know drive their own cars. And own the bathrooms that the men are peeing in. And also clean them. Given all that, you put the seat down when you are through. Thanks for your cooperation with the careful, thoughtful management of a human life.

  7. 67
    Evan Marc Katz

    Imagine you’re dating a man who wants you to lose 20lbs. Or stop seeing your family so much. Or make more money, but work fewer hours, so you could make him dinner. How would you feel about this man who expected you to change? Exactly. Not very good.

    Flip that over. That’s what I mean about acceptance. If you want to be loved, unconditionally, for who you are, without being micromanaged and changed, then you need to do the same for a man. If you don’t because you feel that acceptance is like “twisting yourself into a pretzel”, then you might have a hard time with this dating thing.

    Love is about acceptance, not about change. Get that, and you’ll find love, sooner rather than later.

    Good luck.

  8. 68

    @62: This is the ‘ole “this is the way it is, so it must be the way it always was and always will be” argument so favored by those whom the status quo benefits. Ha!!! 🙂

  9. 69
    Evan Marc Katz

    “Whom the status quo benefits?” Huh? We’re all in this TOGETHER. There’s no happy relationships unless both women AND men are on board with acceptance.

    Trust me: for most of my life, I had a series of relationships with women who DIDN’T accept me. My revelation was in discovering that there was a woman who WOULD accept me. I married her and am never letting her go. It’s exhausting being with someone who wants you to change all the time, wouldn’t you agree?

    So please, stop making men to be the enemy here. If men were asking me questions about how to change women, they’d get the same reality check. I’m sincerely sorry if you don’t like what I’m saying, but really, give the negativity a rest. This is my blog. I really don’t need to defend myself, but I think it’s important that you understand that the message is for EVERYONE, not just women.

  10. 70

    @67: The problem with your argument is that you are suggesting that women accept traditional roles that we have fought long and hard to break free of and that most of us are happy to see go. (In your example, the traditional female strictures would to be pleasing physically on his terms, take on household chores that might just as easily be shared, put the relationship with him above her other sustaining relationships, those that predate her relationship with him and might outlast it.) In other words, you’re making a case for female dependence on men without showing at all how it goes the other way. In the example you give you’re asking her to become subservient to him and give up her claims in the world–claims she might need were the relationship to go south. And you’re adding a threat–if she doesn’t do these subservient things, the relationship will definitely go south because she isn’t being accepting (read “compliant”) enough. To add insult to injury, she doesn’t even have a say in how the household is to be run (he still gets the seat up!).

    This is not a compelling scenario for coupledom. Love is also about knowing what you won’t accept and having the guts to soldier on, being true to yourself, and finding the people of your tribe–men and women both. Maybe you weren’t compliant enough and had to learn that “acceptance” lesson, and that’s why this message keeps cropping up here, but for a lot of us gals we’ve accepted way too much bad male behavior. We did change in response to that. But it wasn’t to become more tolerant of b.s.

  11. 71

    @69: I’m not making men the enemy. I’m acknowledging that some men are the enemy, as are some women. You keep telling women that they have to accept specific things about men. They do not. Then you follow it up with a threat that if they don’t they won’t find a man to love them. Again, false. There are so many men who do not partake of what many of consider “typical male” behavior. These are the men I know and love. They also happen to be men who consider leaving a toilet seat up after peeing to be very crude behavior and would be embarrassed if they did it, even by mistake. Just as a counter-example.

  12. 72
    Evan Marc Katz

    To wrap up this thread:

    NOWHERE do I say to put up with bad behavior. Everywhere on this site, I tell women to leave men who don’t call, don’t commit, only want sex, don’t follow through on dates, don’t treat you well, etc.

    EVERYWHERE I tell you to accept OTHER things that are NORMAL among GOOD men. That may include him being a flirt, it may include him being a workaholic, it may include him working on a different relationship timetable, it may even include him forgetting the way you like your toilet seat.

    Choose your battles, Betty. But let’s get it straight: I’m an advocate for women who want to know how to handle men. Good men. Like me. Like my male readers. So for you to conflate clueless and inconsiderate bathroom behavior with a man who only calls you once a week…or doesn’t propose after 4 years… well, those are two entirely different stories.

    I hope you can agree – and agree with everything else I’ve offered today. I am FOR you, not against you. And, as you can tell, it pains me that you can’t see this.

    Off to coach more women like you…


  13. 73

    Okay before I read everything else, TY for those that did read my wall of text. God that was aweful!! hahaha. I appreciate you listening.

    Toilet thing. He can leave it up if he wants. I’m just going to ask him to put it down. It’s a thing. It’s like saying I hate putting gas in the car. It’s a thing. I HATE PUTTING GAS IN THE CAR!! hahaha.

    Not a big thing, he doesn’t have to do it, but…it’s really nice when he does, and I notice it. I’m a bit forgetful by nature and am worrying about other complicated stuff. Hitting the poop water(no seat), or hitting the “ding ding ding” no gas meter(my constant issue) sucks.

    But in terms of equality, yes it should be “up” as much as “down”.

    No reason either way. Weird huh? What is a sheila/bloke thing? It something you recognize, don’t understand and do, because it’s kinda sweet 🙂 It’s a rule we know 😛

  14. 74

    @ 65

    You make a great point.

    Do you put the seat down?

  15. 75

    @70 I don’t know how you got all that from Evan’s comments.

    I did get the impression from Evans comments, that he was saying a little “too much” that women should curb their need for validation.

    The Post title, say’s it all. Yes, we need validation.

    Find the validation you are able to handle as a man, and find a woman that only requires that much.

    Women will alway’s need it, just like men will in their stuff too 🙂 And it won’t alway’s make sense.

  16. 76
    Kat Wilder

    Let’s face it, men and women are different doh and we react differently.
    Women do need to understand that men are fixers, and men do need to understand that women want to be heard, and not always get advice (or, be “fixed.”)
    I wish both sexes could appreciate those differences and learn how to work with them. And that means each couple should at some point have a conversation about what he/she wants his/her partner to do when venting, crying, etc.
    Then, we should respect that (and be forgiven if we sometimes slip into old patterns). This is not rocket science; it’s communication (uh, which is often like rocket science!)
    And, honestly, we women have trouble advising each other, too.

  17. 77

    A funny little history story although you don’t have to post it.

    Cato (of Roman times) said that we men rule the world and then we come home and women rule us.

    Great blog and comments.  

  18. 78

    The whole point of the post is that men and women tend to communicate differently.  Understanding that men and women have different communication styles helps relationships.  He’s not saying one way is better than the other.
    Leaving the seat up is not a character flaw.  Many men have gone their entire lives without having to even think about such a thing.  Its a minor thing.  Women do annoying things that men have to deal with. I can’t make my wife stop liking trash reality TV programs and she can’t make me stop liking football. Acceptance is about being able to overlook minor things that don’t matter, and understand that men and women are different.  

  19. 79

    Great article, Evan. I am not in a relationship, but I do have this issue with my Dad. When I tell him about my day, issue etc he will say things like “what you should do is….” or “you need to…”. Please note: this occurs even when I am merely giving facts about what someone has done (my lawyer filed this document and it will be 6 weeks before my court date,etc). This makes my eyes bug out as I bite hard on my tongue to keep from commenting.
    Now, since this is my Dad, it seems to me that perhaps he has not yet realized that I’ve grown up and am a competent person.  For me, there are four issues here. One, his ideas about how to solve things are radically different than mine. Two, when I provide information, I almost always have already decided what I need to do or am willing to do, but am expressing my discomfort with the situation. I genuinely do not want feedback. Three, his suggestions almost always stress me out and make me feel worse. Four, when I am providing facts, I am not always in the right place to help him process his emotional response to those events.
    Now, my Dad has expressed that he is just trying to help, that it always makes him feel better when someone gives him suggestions. He didn’t know how to know when I needed feedback. My response was “Please don’t provide suggestions unless you get a direct request for it, such as: what is your opinion, what do you think, what would you do?”. I tried to make it clear when I would welcome input and when I would not. To be fair, when he discusses his life, I also ask him “Do you want input on that?” or “Are you looking for a suggestion?” before offering my thoughts. My first assumption is that he knows best what is right for him.
    I also gave him specific feedback that he could offer that I would receive as helpful, such as saying “gosh, un-huh, wow, that’s big, what are you going to do?” This helps me receive his commentary without feeling judged or that he believes I am not competent to handle the situation.
    When I do share my emotions about a situation with my Dad I try to specify “I’m just venting, I don’t need you to fix this”, or even “I already have a solution, Dad, I’m just not ready to do it yet, I’m still too angry/sad/riled up”. Part of this is a belief I have that if I have an emotion, I don’t have to do anything about it. Just saying “I’m angry!” often is enough to move me past that emotion.
    However, I almost always end with a comment of “Thanks for listening; that really helped” or “when you listen it really makes me feel supported, and I appreciate that”. I try hard to be clear about what I’m looking for and to provide the same to him.
    What is good about this is that (in spite of the irritation factor) it is a process where we both try to respect what the other needs and wants. We both listen to what the other says and try to accomodate that person’s preferred mode of conversation. This has genuinely helped us communicate better and made the relationship more enjoyable.

  20. 80

    I am a woman who is trying to learn how to support girlfriends when they want to vent. I honestly don’t have the brain power to wrap my mind around all of this yet, as I’ve just set on the goal of living more aware, but I feel whether someone wants to vent or has expectations of others to “cater” to them is a bigger issue in the USA (lived here since I was 7) than in China, where I grew up and often visit. Though Chinese women have become more self-centered in recent generations.
    There must be an interaction between genetics and upbringing, but I see people as drains, self-sustaining springs, or fountains. Often fountains and drains can be mistaken for each other. I hate to unload my problems on others and my husband is the same way. We’re able to find common ground and I have female friends urging me to become more nurturing or so on…and frankly, while I do value my friends and wonder if something is “wrong” with me, I am sick of the epidemic of emotionally draining women that are widely accepted and supported in mainstream culture, and believe that the rest of society exists to validate them. I try to remember I am allowed to be the way I am, and avoid these people, though they’re a large chunk of the population, in platonic and romantic relationships like the plague.

  21. 81

    I know this is an old thread, but I thought I’d make a comment.  I, too, have been repeatedly frustrated by this issue when my wife wanted to vent and I tried to offer advice – leading to anger and resentment on her part, and confusion on my part.  There’s a fantastic short film on this called “It’s not about the nail” – google it and watch it if you want a great laugh.
    I had 2 comments: First is that, according to neurochemical studies, women’s and men’s brains respond differently to conversation.  Women’s brains release oxytocin when having emotional conversations with friends – this hormone leads to feelings of bonding and closeness.  Men’s brains do NOT release oxytocin upon emotional conversation – hence our confusion about why women love to talk so much, and women’s confusion of why men don’t, generally, like to talk so much.  Women, in general, feel bonded due to emotional conversation, men do NOT (in fact, we may feel somewhat nonplussed/repelled by it, in some cases).
    2) If you are a fan of the MBTI system (as I am), you will acknowledge that being a “problem solver” versus an “emotional venter” is not due to gender, but rather due to propensity for being primarily a “thinker” vs primarily a “feeler” – not due to introversion/extroversion, as suggested by some previous posters.  For those who are unfamiliar with the system, being a “thinker” does not mean that one does not feel, nor does being a “feeler” mean that one does not think.  It just means which process tends to dominate our decision-making process most of the time.  Now, it just so happens that, statistically, more women are primarily “feelers” and more men are primarily “thinkers” – though the reverse can also be true.  Hence there is no need for the offence shown by some of the posters here that “not all women are like that.”  Of course they aren’t.  But most are.  Not because they are women, but because their personality type is “feeler”.
    To summarize, a woman whose personality is a “feeler” will likely need to vent emotionally, both due to her personality and due to her enjoyment of venting from oxytocin release.  A man who is primarily a “thinker” will hate being on the end of that venting because he has no innate “feel” for emotional conversation, nor does he feel bonded afterward (lack of oxytocin). 
    Thus, the best advice I can give women who need to vent is to call your female friends – they will be better listeners and will enjoy the conversation more (unless they are “thinkers”).  Or maybe find a man who is a “Feeler” – though he is unlikely to be the alpha male most women are attracted to.  If you go to a man who is a “thinker” he will try to offer you a solution, because he will think that that is why you are coming to him, and because, to him, ti is the logical thing to do.  And who knows, maybe it might be a good idea to listen – perhaps a fresh perspective on the matter might be useful.  Again, check out “It’s not about the nail.”
    Sorry for the long post on an old topic.

  22. 82
    Virgilio Mendoza

    As a guy, I have this problem with a lady friend who continues to call me about girl friends who have slighted her in this way or the other. The problem is it never ends. She could be babbling on the phone for like 3-4 hours and I am supposed to just listen the whole time. In addition, the following days, she is venting about the same problems again ad nauseum. I have suggested she cut those friends off for her sanity and for her to leave me alone. I have decided to cut the number of calls I take from her. I am a positive person but, all these negativity is utter nonsense!

    1. 82.1
      Virgilio Mendoza

      Got 2 more calls on my answering machine today. No doubt it is to talk about the same friend over again. I do not wish to listen to the same negative diatribe over and over again. Of course, I did not pick up and answer the telephone. That will not stop because she does not respect boundaries. Maybe, she will eventually move to something else, when she finally gets tired of calling and me not answering my telephone.

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