Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
January 2009 - Volume 09, No. 1
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The Leveling Question

This is another article on the topic of adult communication - especially the communication of couples in relationship.

Men are generally uncomfortable when a woman gives unsolicited advice (and sometimes when anyone gives them unsolicited advice). And we men seem to have two options - (1) to get upset or angry, which makes us out to be cads, or (2) to suck it up, which feeds the stress we silently carry around through our years. No win here.

Women don’t have as visceral a response to unsolicited advice, except when it is given as a regular reinforcement of an assumed ‘one-down’ or inferior life status - which women have long suffered.

I recall many years ago when I first began to comprehend this problem. My wife was giving me her thoughts about a business situation I’d been sharing with her. At that moment, I began getting angry - which puzzled me, because that’s not my general personality or style. There was no hostility in what she was doing - and (in my perception) to make matters worse, her advice was very insightful, and even free. But that didn’t alleviate the distress I was experiencing.

After some moments of inner processing, I came up with this response to her:

“I’m having difficulty here, and I think I know what it is. Our agreement about my sharing professional information has two different meanings. Mine is that I share with you what is going on in my professional life (to the extent that client confidentiality is not violated). Your understanding is that I will share and that you are free to comment on it. These are two different ‘contracts.’ What would help me is that when you have something to offer in response, that you begin it by saying something like ”I have some thoughts about that, would you like to hear them?”

This is what subsequently I now call The Leveling Question :

I have some ideas/thoughts about …, would you like to hear them?

The rationale behind it is this: Frequently the sharing of information, especially when it has the character of advice , is received as a one-up to one-down transaction - sometimes called a Parent - Child transaction. And this is often uncomfortable, at least for the ‘one-down’ party. The Leveling Question transforms what follows into a transaction between equals. “I have something to share with you - are you willing to hear/receive it?” And then don’t proceed until the other party has given an affirmative answer. If the other person says no, then that answer rules. The psychological fact of the matter is that when you approach someone in this manner, at least 97% of the time the answer will be a comfortable ”yes” response. “Sure, go ahead.”

I encourage women to be careful about offering “unsolicited advice” to men, because men, by some deep nature, take offense - and also will rarely share (or even understand) their feelings about it. Instead they/we will slowly withdraw - which is itself the most common complaint I hear from woman about their men. Use the Leveling Question first. It works magic with us.

Quite often, when a woman says to a man “let’s talk” - the man’s first response is to go to defense (fear). (There is a reason for that, but I won’t get into it here.) Here also, the Leveling Question is of great benefit. “I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you, are you willing to hear them?“

And I encourage men to be careful to avoid language, voice tones, body postures that (even unintentionally) communicate “down” to a woman. Women have suffered this for centuries, but in our personal relationships, we men then lose that lively and loving support which we desire. A woman “honored with equality” will most often want to give everything she has to a man. (I’ve had that confirmed many times.) The Leveling Question is an invitation to equality in a conversation, and in the relationship. And that equality is a gift we offer a woman - because (it is my observation that) women don’t have that by nature, as men do.

There’s much much more to say about the gender language of relationships. But my point here is that a conscious use of The Leveling Question will go a long ways toward nurturing that vital deep companionship for which we each hunger.

So, pay attention!

Comments (2)

  • Women can take offense about unsolicited advice too, believe me. It all depends on the individuals. I am a woman. It is offensive when people offer advice as if I hadn’t considered something. Most people have no clue how to approach giving advice, and are bound to offend. The leveling question helps.

    It also helps to know one’s own motives. Many people think they are “better than” unconsciously, and share advice as if someone else needs to be rescued.

    Adults needs to stop the gaminess of one-up/one down so relationships between people can improve. It’s better to ask questions first for clarification before giving one’s advice to another, since the other person more than likely has considered many different angles if they are intelligent and thoughtful enough.

    — GemGirl, 8/18/2014
  • I have some insights about this. Would you like to hear them?

    — Nikki, 11/16/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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