A Martian View of Problem Solving

A long time ago, I read the famous book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. I remembered that at the time of my reading, I laughed at its contents in the sense that a lot of things in it were so stereotypical about men and women. I could relate to experiencing every one of its comments in both myself and in others. But after reading it, I really didn’t take it all that seriously to study and remember what it said, and certainly I didn’t change any of my behaviors after reading it.
That is,..until I got divorced, at which time I set myself on a path to do better at everything relationship-wise that I thought I wasn’t doing well.
Last night, I had dinner with two friends, a recent couple. Somehow in our conversation, the topic of problem solving came up.
Now what is “problem solving”?
While generally this is more commonly found in men, I have also found women who exhibit this behavior. Basically, you sit with another person. In relationships, it is usually a guy sitting with a woman. You start talking, and the woman (stereotypically) starts talking about some problem she is experiencing. She is frustrated, or in need, or having trouble with her job or manager – something like that. Then you start telling her that she should just go and do this or that and the problem is solved. After you say that, the woman gets super upset. Then, you proceed to ask her what is wrong. She says that she just wants to be supported. You say that if she would solve the problem, the all the bad feelings will go away. And by the way, I gave you some answers – COOL! problem instantly solved, right? This goes on, usually sliding downward into a huge argument with neither side understanding what is wrong or getting to a better place.
Sound familiar? Let’s analyze what’s wrong with this situation:
1. Most guys are brought up to be problem solvers. Men solve problems. They are great engineers, doctors, whatever. Their whole life is built around having huge problems to solve and upon solving those problems, you feel great and important. It’s worked before with great results, why wouldn’t it work here?
2. Women are brought up to be supportive in nature first before problem solvers. They like to communicate and think verbally, and any issues they have will often come up. It comes out and they want to support at that point in time. Solving the problem is the last thing they want; they want to know someone cares and is listening to them because in the act of getting out and feeling supported, they feel better.
3. Men don’t understand women. Women don’t understand men. And certainly neither have worked specifically on how to communicate with the other sex at this level. I don’t know about you, but I never took any class on it in school.
4. Men and women both expect the other read each others minds. Last time I checked, I don’t have ESP so I guess this isn’t happening.
5. A note on getting “your problems solved”. Generally in this kind of conversational situation, it makes you feel like an idiot, that you can’t solve problems by yourself, and that you can’t think for yourself and that you’re incapable, ineffective, a bad person, etc. etc. This is what the other person is feeling when you try to solve their problems.
Is there a time for problem solving? Yes there is. But it ain’t now.
It took me a long time to understand this and how it related to my own life and relationships. It also took a long time to learn how to do this better, which is basically reinforcing behaviors and responses more effective and appropriate to communicating and relating to the opposite sex. Here is what I realized and did:
1. You have to realize there are two people here. But, you will never change another person unless that other person wants to change. In my experience, it is a rare (and joyous) occurrence if the other person is willing to change with you in this area.
2. So mostly you have to change yourself. I worked on this for months. It is like burning a new habit into your brain. Remember, I’ve had 38+ years of training in the “martian” way of communicating and relating. I think it took me about 4 months of thinking about it and practicing it every single day.
3. I needed new language tools. So I memorized some typical lines which work great like:
“Oh yes that is hard”
“It must be difficult.”
“Feeling that way is tough.”
Also, reflecting back what the other person said also works great. For example:
YOU: “My boss hates me.”
ME: “Yeah it must be really hard if you need to go to work every day and deal with a boss who hates you”
By the way, this is the WRONG response:
YOU: “My boss hates me”
ME: “Why don’t you get a new job?”
It’s called validation – the knowledge that the problem you are experiencing is real and that someone else sees it the same way. Very useful tool.
4. You need to communicate and not read minds. It’s much better that way than waiting for the other person to “figure it out why I’m so upset.” Mind reading DOESN’T work. Respecting the other person by just coming out and saying what’s going on is much better. Increasing your vocabulary in “feelings words” really works here. (You’re probably chuckling that I had to go to that list and memorize it; let me tell you – many people both women and men have never in their lives used words like these…ever. It has to be learned and become part of their normal set of vocabulary usage). Another great list is the needs list.
5. I needed to flip my mind to a new goal when meeting with people. This goal was literally:
“As I sit here at (dinner, meeting, coffee, etc.) with my (friend, girlfriend, etc.), I am going to just sit here and enjoy the moment. I will leave all solving of the world’s problems at the door, and just enjoy hearing about another person’s life and I will get an opportunity to talk about my life. This will be in all aspects of our lives, from the bad to the good, and there is no need to solve any problem (today, tonite, etc.).”
For a long time, I would repeat this to myself before walking into a dinner or meeting with someone. Like I said, it was many months before it became habit.
You know what – it worked GREAT.
What happened:
1. I became a better friend to everyone. Not just women but men too. Certainly my relationships have become much better as well.
2. I understood the opposite sex much better and could relate in a more useful and meaningful way.
3. I also (unexpectedly) became more sensitive and attuned myself. My sensitivity radar jumped to all sorts of things that were non-verbal signals on how I should react in certain situations.
We can laugh all we want and complain that the opposite sex doesn’t understand us and we don’t understand them. That may be true, and perhaps we’ll always be from different planets in some aspect – but like it or not, we have to learn to deal with the opposite sex, and to live with them for a long time.
A good friend of mine said something really insightful to me once. He said:
“Society teaches us to be great doctors, lawyers, physicists, and rocket scientists. We go to school for 12 years, college for 4, and then who knows how many years of graduate school afterwards and you know what, we become GREAT doctors, lawyers, physicists, and rocket scientists. But society NEVER teaches you how to relate to another person for the rest of your life…”
…which arguably when all is said and done, a helluva lot more important than being a rocket scientist.