Translating Mom-Speak and Dad-Speak

Translating Mom-Speak and Dad-Speak

Sometimes it seems like Eric and I are speaking different languages. For example, when I think we’re just talking about how we’re each feeling about something, he thinks we’re trying to identify some problem and solve it. I end up feeling like he’s not really listening to me, and he ends up feeling frustrated that we’re not getting anywhere.

In relationships, women generally tend to focus on feeling connected, while men are sensitive to status and dominance. For instance, a mother could think her husband will welcome her knowledge because he wants to come together with her in raising their children. Yet he could interpret her parenting tips as condescending or controlling. Similarly, in conversation, women emphasize the process of being together, concrete consequences for specific people, and feelings, while men tend to emphasize tasks and outcomes, impersonal perspectives, and information. Each gender style is valid, like it’s valid to be Italian or Swedish. Skill with the other gender’s style lets you shift gears effectively, depending on what’s needed. It’s completely alright – and often necessary! – to ask your partner to communicate with you in a way that’s closer to what you need as a woman.

For example, a man who is skillful at “mom-speak” can:

  • Accept your feelings instead of trying to talk you out of them; hear you out instead of trying to solve the problem
  • Ask questions about your thoughts and feelings; ask three or more questions in a row (and not “How am I doing?”!)
  • Nod, smile, make eye contact, say “yeah” frequently, etc. to let you know he’s with you; encourage you to say more; focus on the conversation going well more than any practical outcome
  • Let himself be moved emotionally; express an empathic understanding; offer relevant self-disclosure
  • Understand that your (often greater) expertise about the children is not a threat but an asset for him and the family; be confident enough in his own parenting to ask for suggestions or help
  • Realize that you need to ask him questions about his schedule, whereabouts, or plans in order to coordinate with him, not to be bossy; recognize that you are not trying to control him
  • Be willing to talk about problems instead of thinking they might reveal an embarrassing flaw; realize that raising a family means one trouble after another
  • Recognize that you need to be able to talk about your children or marriage with close friends
  • Above all, communicate that he cares about you and wants to stay connected

And a woman who is skillful “dad-speak” can:

  • Pay attention to her husband’s reactions to issues of power, dominance, and status; be careful about orders, put-downs, or ultimatums
  • “Knock before entering” by asking him if this is a good time to talk (he should name another one if it isn’t)
  • Explain the principles, values, or goals that guide her thinking; be direct about what she wants
  • Consider sometimes listening as one man would to another, with less of the chiming in and personal statements she might use with another woman
  • Understand that he may not feel his passing thoughts are worth sharing, so his quiet does not necessarily mean that he is not listening; understand that he may regard personal questions as potentially intrusive, so his lack of inquiry into her world could be respectful rather than uncaring
  • Realize that his detached verbal style does not mean he wants to distance himself from his wife
  • Recognize that his debate-style challenges are to him fair play in an ongoing interaction, not a personal attack: more like a strong move to the hoop than walking off the court
  • Be judicious in what she says about him or her family to others
  • Above all, communicate respect for his autonomy; make it clear that she is simply trying to work together as equal partners in the best interests of the children

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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