We often hear about the difficulty of getting men to reach out for help when they need it.
While the stereotypes of ‘reluctant men’ can often hold true, perhaps part of the problem is in the common approaches used to encourage men to open up. By adapting our approach using techniques that have been proven effective, maybe we can have better conversations with men.
Tips for better conversations with men
Conversations with men tend to be more effective when there’s a clear purpose – addressing a problem that needs solving or making a point. Many men tend to fall into the ‘fixer’ mindset when communicating, preferring to tackle problems directly rather than discussing at length.
On MensLine Australia, our counsellors are specifically trained to employ a more goal or solutions-oriented approach to help, rather than just ‘talking about feelings’. We find it effective – give it a try!
Tip: Be direct. Frame the conversation in terms of goals or solutions with clear outcomes or directions.
When stressed, some guys tend to withdraw into their ‘cave’, becoming quiet and withdrawn. Some men reduce stress by forgetting about problems and focusing on other things, preferring to avoid talking until they feel ready. Sometimes the most effective way to have productive conversations with men is to appreciate the need for space.
Tip: Offer help but then leave him to take up the offer when it suits him.
Don’t make it a big deal
If you’re talking about a sensitive topic, don’t make it into a big conversation – this can be overwhelming and make the bloke shy away. Putting too much emphasis on ‘the talk’ by putting it in a formal setting or over-emphasising its importance builds pressure and it may mean that the man you care about becomes more withdrawn, uncooperative or avoidant. If needed, be flexible and consider having a few short talks, rather than one big conversation, to get the conversation moving. Keep an eye out for signs of discomfort and alter your approach – sometimes a gentler approach is better.
Tip: Keep it casual and low intensity. It may take a few short talks, rather than one epic conversation, to get him to open up.
Provide a distraction
Men may need an activity to do when they’re talking, because the presence of a ‘conversation escape route’ reduces the pressure. If the conversation gets too intense, he can shift the topic back to the activity and not get overwhelmed.
This is why many experts recommend conducting conversations with men whilst doing another activity – watching sport, doing chores, driving, exercising or handiwork.
Tip: Talk while doing something else to give him an ‘conversation escape route’ if needed.
Check your stance
Many men prefer to talk while standing side by side – it helps avoid eye contact and allows them to concentrate on the discussion. This is often referred to as ‘side by side shoulder orientation’ or ‘sideways listening’. Think about some of the situations that seem to work best for a good chat – sitting around a campfire, watching sport or going on a road trip – they all tend to minimise direct eye contact.
There are several possible explanations for this preferred stance:
- Direct eye contact can be seen as challenging among men
- The side-by-side stance increases men’s comfort level
- Men don’t place as high a priority on ‘reading’ a person’s expressions – they tend to take words at face value
- Men are more likely to define emotional closeness as working or playing side-by-side
“Sideways listening” has proved particularly successful in all sorts of therapeutic, professional and personal situations. It is more relaxing and lets the conversation flow more naturally. This stance may also work for talking with children and teenagers.
Tip: Avoid face to face stances and adopt a more casual ‘side by side’ stance.
Using empowering language
Try to avoid the language of failure. When talking about emotional issues, some men might be offended by some phrases like ‘suffering from (depression / anxiety etc.)’ as it can suggest that they are lacking in power or failing. Talking about help seeking as a demonstration of strength and taking control can be more effective. Use terms like ‘feeling stressed’, ‘battling against pressures’, or ‘getting things back on track’.
Tip: Try using the language of strength and empowerment in your conversations with men, using more positive terms like ‘mental fitness’ instead of terms that suggest weakness.
Of course, every man is different, but these tips may lead to different approaches that lead to better conversations with men and help them express themselves more easily. Remember that having a chat about how someone is feeling, even if it’s a bit awkward, is better than not having the chat at all. The single most important thing you can do is to offer a friendly ear, show that you are listening and keep it clear of judgement – that alone can make an enormous difference to how someone is feeling.
If you need someone to talk to, you can call our MensLine Australia counsellors on 1300 78 99 78, or click the chat button on the right for online counselling. MensLine is free and available 24/7.
If it is an emergency, please call 000.