“Sometimes it feels like Ron has only two ways of reacting to me…he goes numb emotionally, or he tells me what he thinks I should do. As you can imagine, neither of these work for me.” ~ Tara
The dilemma Tara describes above is one I often hear from women about their spouses/partners. And while these two male reactions (shutting down emotionally–going “numb”–or suggesting how to handle a particular circumstance in order to “fix it”) appear very different from each other, they do share an important commonality. Both reactions violate a central feature of effective communication. “Premature-Action Syndrome” is problematic because it causes a breakdown in empathic listening (a major cause of communication breakdowns), and the loss of empathic listening can lead to a wide range of serious marital/relationship issues.
“Please stop jumping the gun. I don’t need to you to fix all my problems…just listen to me!” ~Louise, giving feedback to her husband
What is “Premature-Action Syndrome?”
Like its sexual cousin premature ejaculation, premature-action is a phenomenon that can impact men and lead to marital/relationship distress. The central feature of Premature-Action Syndrome involves:
One partner finishing too quickly…in this case, what is prematurely finished is the conversation, which is brought to an end when one partner gives the other unsolicited advice on a course of action s/he should take.
And while there are exceptions to every rule, men seem to suffer from Premature-Action Syndrome more often than women (at least that’s what I observe as a psychologist and couples counselor).
Why is Premature-Action Syndrome a problem?
There are several reasons why prematurely moving into action or problem-solving mode is troublesome for relationships:
- Premature-action pulls you out of an empathic listening mode, a type of listening that leads to understanding each other’s emotional needs. Mutual understanding is essential for deep and lasting emotional connection and intimacy—therefore, premature-action has the potential to immediately sever the emotional connection that exists between you and your spouse/partner;
- Relying on an action or problem-solving mode implies that you know what’s best for your partner and that they need you to tell them what to do (whether intentional or not, this creates a superior-subordinate dynamic in the relationship);
- Inadvertently, premature-action undermines your partner’s ability to ultimately make decisions and solve her/his own problems—it’s as if you’re leading him/her around by the hand and they’d be lost without your sage guidance.
Rethinking Listening as an Active Process
Many of the men I work with view listening as a non-action: In other words, they experience themselves as passive and not offering their partner anything meaningful if they don’t share their “how to’s” and “did you…” or any one of a myriad of suggestions about how to handle the particular issue being discussed.
But the truth is, empathic listening is an active process, involving two people fully engaged in discourse. The empathic listener is openly curious about the other person’s experience: Wondering and inquiring about why his/her partner is feeling or reacting the way they are, asking questions about his/her experience. And empathic listening may offer a suggested solution but not a premature one.
After listening empathically, the empathic-listener may inquire, “I have a suggestion or two if you’d like to hear them. Let me know if that would be helpful to you.” Whether or not this occurs, the point to remember is that often what the speaker really wants is an active, invested listener. This is the gift of empathic listening.
So to all the men out there, when you feel the urge to tell your partner how to “fix” a problem he or she comes to you with, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that by being present and asking questions about your partner’s experience (without telling him/her what to do), you are doing more for your partner than you probably realize.
Relationship and Communication Resources
In a previous relationship advice article for men, I explore the underlying emotions that can prematurely pull men out of an empathic mode of listening. Click Relationship Help For Men to read this article.
And for more information on how to become a more effective communicator and listener, check out my comprehensive communication workbook.
Dr. Rich Nicastro