Woman talking man listening
Photo: Thinkstock
It's not as if you always need to know how your husband feels about you or his childhood or his purpose here on earth. And it's not as if you want to spend hours on the phone with your dad, uncle, brothers or old college friends. Sometimes you just want one of them to weigh the merits of salad spinners. To help open the lines of communication between you and the men you love, we interviewed three experts to find the most effective ways to get them talking.

Approach him from the side.

Walking straight up to a man and sitting down directly across from him can trigger his competitive instincts, says executive coach Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, who counsels business leaders on nonverbal communication. She says that while women prefer talking to each other in a "squared up" position (i.e., across from each other), two men talking casually are more likely to angle their bodies away from each other. You'll have a better chance of getting your dad to talk about his golf game by doing dishes with him at the sink or plopping down next to him on the couch.

Go for a walk, or play a game of tennis.

Women are usually more comfortable than men with the idea that spending time together will involve talking, says Diane Gehart, PhD, professor of marriage and family therapy at California State University, Northridge. A lot of that has to do with how we spent time with other kids when we were young. "Many men learned to develop connections through shared activities," says Gehart. As boys, they bonded while engaging in sports, playing video games or skateboarding; girls took part in sleepover gossip-a-thons. For evidence that these roles have carried over to adulthood, count the groups of women versus men the next time you go for brunch (an event that revolves around eggs, coffee and face-to-face chatter). Another reason that talking while walking—or hiking or driving—can be easier for you both is that it provides ready-made conversation fodder. For example, "Did you see that deer?" or "Did you see that Prius?"

Wait until you can actually hear each other before starting the conversation.

Yes, we just said to do activities together. And we're not advising you to stay away from sports bars or rock concerts. (Your instincts to meet him on his home turf are right on: That's where he hangs out with his friends.) But most men don't do much catching up at these places, at least until the game or the show is over, so you can't really expect to engage him until then either.

Next: Getting him to answer your questions
Sprawl when he sprawls.

"Mirroring" is the term used to describe the technique of subtly copying another person's postures to build rapport. "When I was a therapist, I often used mirroring to help make clients more comfortable talking to me," says Goman. You're not trying to mimic all his movements. If he has one arm slung across the back of the couch, you might uncross your arms and legs. The idea is to show empathy through body language. This should put you both at ease, allowing conversation to flow more naturally.

Smile often—but don't expect him to smile back.

Good moods and enthusiasm are contagious. Ronald F. Levant, EdD, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio who specializes in getting men to open up, says that his clients often tell him how much they enjoy it when women smile at them. "It makes them feel liked, keeps them engaged and builds their confidence," he says—and it puts them in a chatty mood. But unlike women, who usually react to a smile by beaming back, Levant says that you should be aware that men are far less likely to reciprocate.

If you want an answer, ask a question.

When working with male and female executives, Goman has noticed that men are less animated than women in conversations; they don't nod as often or make as many affirmative sounds, like "mm-hmm." (Studies on gender differences in nonverbal communication back her up.) Some men, especially those who were raised in an earlier era with more traditional ideas about masculinity, think that listening means quietly giving your full attention to the speaker, says Gehart. This lack of feedback makes some women think men aren't really listening. Gehart suggests soliciting his opinions with direct questions ("Did you finish that Swedish crime novel, Dad? What did you like about it?") instead of with open-ended statements ("Oh, you're reading that Dragon Tattoo book too").

Next: The dealbreaker phrases that will shut down a conversation
When you really want to hash something out, avoid loaded phrases.

They're the phrases we fall back on: "We need to talk" or "Can I talk to you for a minute?" or "Come sit down." They somehow sound ominous even when you're using your kindliest, I-swear-I'm-not-angry voice, and they always make him think that this is going to get ugly. A better idea, Gehart says, is to ease into a contentious conversation by acknowledging his position (especially when it's different from yours) and showing empathy. This is one way to bring up the idea of a vacation you know he's opposed to: "I understand why you don't want to spend extra money right now, but I also know that you've been working hard and need a break." This next part is key: Explain your thinking behind the request, as well as the benefits it will bring him. "I also need a break, and getting out of town really helps me relax in a way that a 'staycation' doesn't. You've mentioned that you feel the same way." Then finish with the thing you want: "That's why I think we should book that trip to Paris." Gehart says that another strategy involves having a mini-conversation about the bigger discussion you know you two need to have. For example, instead of "We need to talk about where we're spending Thanksgiving this year," you could try, "I know you don't want to talk about Thanksgiving, and honestly, I don't either, but it's just around the corner. Let me know when you're ready to discuss it—I want to make sure I'm prepared with a glass of wine in case things get tense."

Turn a complaint into a request.

Marital researchers have found that in 70 percent of the situations in which heterosexual couples are unhappy, women will be more likely to initiate a dispute and request change, while men will tend to withdraw, avoid and stonewall their partners. This communication style is self-perpetuating: As she continues to make demands, he withdraws further. What's more, Gehart says, women are more likely than men to bring up a negative topic by criticizing their partner. Even if you're dying to tell him exactly what he did wrong, focus instead on explaining how to do it right and why that's important for you both. "Try to make it a positive, specific request," says Gehart, and avoid "you never" or "you always" (no matter how many times we hear this advice, we always seem to forget it when we're frustrated). Instead of "You never dry the dishes and put them away," try "It would really help me out if, after you rinse the dishes, you'd dry them and put them away. I know it takes some extra time, but that would make my morning a thousand times easier."

When emotions escalate, take a time-out.

During a heated argument, a verbal attack can prompt the release of adrenaline. Our heart starts racing, our blood pressure rises and our stress level increases. As soon as the heart is beating more than 100 times per minute, Gehart says, our fight-or-flight instincts kick in, and we start looking for an escape. Men are more likely to feel defensive in a conversation because (as we mentioned before) women are socialized to talk things out. When his voice rises and his face turns red, give up—for now. Your instinct may be to comfort him by touching him, but this can backfire. "Some men feel overwhelmed by these intense feelings, and they physiologically can't handle your touch," says Levant. It takes men longer to recover from these types of emotional flare-ups, so don't expect to dive back in for a few more hours. Even better, wait for him to initiate the conversation. It's likely he will—remember, even if he doesn't like the topic, he likes you and wants you to be happy.

More Ways to Connect


Next Story