Updated: Nov 20, 2019
How many times have you been in conversation with a partner or loved one, and felt that you just couldn’t get through to them? You both understood the words, but neither of you was hearing the other? Like your brain was turned off. It’s frustrating. Disappointing. And it happens all the time.
How many times, after a conflict or disagreement, have you felt that it would have been different if you knew then what you came to understand later?
Why is it so hard to have a happy relationship? You would think that cutting-edge science would not be needed to address this question. After millions of years of evolution and tens of thousands of human societies, you’d think we’d have worked out by now how to understand, and get along with, one another. Philosophers and poets might have some insights, and I don’t want to tread on their turf.
However, as a therapist, coach, and associate professor of the science of behavioral organizational leadership and communication, I wonder what we have unlearned across the years, or what have we learned that is not actually true?
Why do people say the things they do? How do some words excite our emotions and others turn them off?
What is the connection between that gut-wrenching or passionate feeling in our heart, and our communication and interactions? And how can science have proven we react to stimuli seconds before we are consciously aware of them? Who is in charge inside us?[i].
When you talk to someone — even your partner — do you really understand their intended meaning? Is it clear to you what you want to get out of the conversation? Is it clear what the other person wants? Moreover, is there a shared understanding of where this interaction fits in the context of your relationship?
When you look at the science, you realize that human beings, the greatest thinking machines that have ever existed on this planet, don’t have much insight into how their own thinking processes work.
In the absence of a real grasp of what makes ourselves and others tick, we have been treated to one ‘theory of the mind’ after another. Some theories claim to be scientific — based on observations and case studies. Others are metaphysical or philosophical — based on thinking deeply about people and humanity. Still more have been made up by well-meaning people or by charlatans out to make a buck. The shelves of bookstore self-help sections groan under the weight of tomes peddling one vapid insight after another.
Current research has upended the notion that we have in our heads a single powerful mind that is home to our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. In fact, science now tells us that we have not one, but three centers of thought and memory! Each one perceives, interprets, and reacts to the world in a distinctly different way.
In addition to our well-known ‘thinking’ brain (which we will call the ‘Head Brain’), we have a ‘feeling’ brain (which we will call our ‘Heart Brain’) and a third brain — at our core — whose job it is to keep us safe. We will call this ‘self-preservation’ brain the ‘Gut Brain’.
When we get angry or upset, what triggers those feelings and emotions? If the Head Brain (or the mammal limbic, or reptilian cerebellum brain) was truly the only home to our thoughts and feelings, why is it so hard to talk ourselves out of feeling and emotion? When we feel bad, where do we feel bad? In our Head, in our Heart or in our Gut? When our hearts are broken or our guts are churning with anxiety, why is it that the dispassionately rational thoughts in our heads don’t make a dent in our emotions? When we’re inclined to blurt out things we know we shouldn’t say, what compels us to do it anyway?
When I ask these questions of my clients, my coachees, or the people I meet, they often try to explain that any shared understanding is next to impossible; especially when that interaction is with someone of the ‘opposite’ sex. “You know Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus”, they tell me. “So, it is obvious we speak different emotional languages.”
We have come, in part thanks to that popular book and its ubiquitous metaphor, to take as a revealed truth that such misunderstandings are a natural result of ingrained gender differences. Nonsense. Or let me put it more clearly: NONSENSE!
Men and women do not come from different planets. We are all human.
But being human is a complicated thing. It’s hard enough to understand what drives our own thinking and ways of communicating, much less interpret what someone who was raised and socialized differently is really meaning or thinking, when they may not even know themselves.
The fact that men and women have a tough time fitting in with one another is no surprise when you broaden the picture to understand that people have trouble fitting in with other people! Gender is one factor. There are many, many others, the gender of you or your partner doesn’t matter.
Now is the time to use that knowledge to solve the problems of our own relationships, and find happiness.
Source: "How Men and Women Fit". You can find it at Amazon : https://amzn.to/2kpENnz
Professor organisation and behavioural leadership at IE Business School.
Clinical Hypnotherapist/psychotherapist and Executive Coach.