Talking point: Why men don’t talkby
The British Library, in partnership with the BBC, is engaged in an ambitious long-term project to record ordinary people in intimate conversations. The Listening Project invites two people to talk about meaningful personal matters they may never have properly discussed before. Excerpts from the conversations are broadcast regularly on BBC radio.
In October 2012 a 15-minute compilation was given over entirely to conversations between pairs of men. It was introduced by the presenter with the words: ‘I don’t think you can hear any reticence, emotional handicaps or crippling inability to communicate caused solely by chromosome formation.’
The message was clear: the listener could expect to hear emotional openness and honesty. The underlying implication was equally clear: this will be unusual.
Of course, this remark was made light-heartedly. But the fact that it was made at all tells us plainly what many people think about men’s emotional literacy and ability to articulate their feelings. The question then is, do these assumptions about men reflect a stereotype or a reality? This was the question that Relate and the Men’s Health Forum set out to explore in their new report Try to See it My Way.
We know that men are more reluctant than women to seek support and advice when relationships run into difficulties. Far fewer men use telephone advice and helpline services. We also know that men are less likely to access counselling services generally. Men make up just 36 per cent of referrals to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. They are also under-represented in relationship support services: just 44 per cent of Relate’s clients are men.
So why can’t (or won’t) men seek help for emotional problems? The first and most obvious answer is that men are socialised not to admit to vulnerability, which is a prerequisite of securing help. The second is that maybe we aren’t offering the kind of support that men can relate to and that they find helpful.
The report suggests work is a key factor. Men’s tendency to work longer hours can cause relationship problems and conflicts around the life–work balance; financial difficulties can increase pressure on the man, who is often still the primary breadwinner in the family.
One of the key findings of the report is that men and women have very different approaches to communication. Insights generated by two focus groups of Relate counsellors found that men have a tendency to want to ‘solve problems’ while women want to discuss change and understand why things have happened. So men are coming to counselling with unrealistic expectations.
But the Relate counsellors told us that men may have become more open to the idea of relationship counselling in recent years. And they told us there may be things we can do to reach out to and engage men in taking better care of their own emotional health.
Our report makes a series of recommendations. Some are to national Government around raising men’s awareness of the importance of emotional health and making personal, social and health education a statutory requirement in schools.
But the Department of Health and counselling providers need to be thinking of ways to encourage men to seek help for emotional and relationship issues, whether through the IAPT programme or from voluntary sector or independent providers.
Counselling providers need to explore less formal, more practical and solution-focused approaches to relationship support that may be more acceptable to men, such as relationship coaching. They could take services out of traditional counselling settings and deliver them online and in community settings and workplaces, at times that fit men’s schedules.
They could market their services better, in more male-friendly ways. And they need to recognise the importance of partners, relatives, friends and employers in encouraging men to access relationship support.
And, as data is always important, they should ensure the information they record on uptake, exit and outcomes is broken down by gender. How else can we be sure that what we are offering is reaching men and delivering positive outcomes?
Our report doesn’t provide all the answers because we haven’t got them. It asks a lot of questions and we hope researchers and counsellors will engage with these questions. Enabling men to talk will be a core message in our mental health themed Men’s Health Week in June (you can find out more at www.menshealthforum.org.uk).
Getting men into the counsling room requires offering †hem practical solution-focused approaches.