26 Sep 2010

So Your Partner's a Rational Creature ... - Part Two

Welcome to part two of my attempt to explore the rational mind, in which I want to discuss fundamental differences in how ratio-driven and emotion-driven people approach everyday life.

(Continued from part one.)

Fundamental difference #1:

Rational people are problem-focused rather than people-focused.

When confronted with a difficult situation, they will either avoid it or tackle it, but they'll be concentrating on the issue, not on the people or potential emotions involved.


(I've stuck with the male-female clich├ęs for stereotypical clarity. Please substitute names and genders as fits.)

Angela's had a horrible day at work and comes home feeling frustrated and sad. She starts telling her partner Bob about all the things that happened that day. Halfway through her 3rd sentence (this Bob is an extravert) he interrupts her and starts giving her advice. Angela gets even more frustrated, lashes out at Bob because "he never listens and doesn't even try to understand what's going on inside her", and stomps off, leaving Bob puzzled on the couch.

What just happened?


First of all, Angela wasn't talking about her problems so much as sharing how she felt. She wasn't looking for a solution. Not yet. That might/would come later, after the initial emotions had been processed.

Actions that would have helped her: just listening, nodding, asking a few supportive questions to show he was paying attention and did care. How? Well, plenty of options: cuddles, getting her something to drink, opening a box of (carefully hidden) emergency chocolates, or taking her out to dinner. Or all of the above. (Feel free to share below what would work for you!)


Bob on the other hand didn't want Angela to feel bad, was listening for facts about the problem and looked for solutions. His main intent: to prevent this from happening again. Ever. Like I said: problem-focused. He contributed with what he does best: analysing the situation, considering possible solutions and picking the most appropriate one. Angela's response comes out of the blue and seems completely irrational and unnecessary. It leaves him confused and frustrated. When this happens a few times, he's likely to conclude that it's a woman thing and that they're fickle creatures who are impossible to please.

Now, there are things Angela could have done to help him, like telling him that what she really needed was comfort and emotional support, and that even though she appreciated his help in trying to fix it, she couldn't focus on solutions until much later, once she'd got over the initial emotional reaction.

Reality check:

I know this sounds much easier than it is, but don't despair: it's okay to get it wrong a number of times. We are amazing learners with flexible and versatile brains. As long as we keep analysing afterwards, and put in the effort to look beyond feeling wronged, hurt or misunderstood, we will soon discover that after the temporary unpleasantness has died down, our rational partners are very willing to look at what went wrong and even more to find ways to prevent this from happening again.

Continued in Rational creature - part 3

Image: 'Close Up of The Thinker' by Todd Martin, available under a creative commons license. © 2005, Todd Martin.
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