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Men & Women Communicating in the Workplace

By Edward Leigh, MA

It has become a pop culture trend to analyze the differences between male and female communication differences. Some people believe men and women are so different it is though they are living on different planets! Of course, there are gender differences in communication styles. It is important to emphasize each style of communication is equally valid. The goal in gender communication is not change the style of communication but to adapt to the differences.

There are certain patterns of behavior that each gender tends to display, however this is not to state that all men and all women have certain characteristics. We have to be careful never to generalize or stereotype. We are all on a continuum and there are always variations. Rather, we will focus on trends that different genders tend to posses in terms of communication styles.

Gender differences start early in life. In her book, You Just Don't Understand, Deborah Tanen asserts that "even if they grow up in the same neighborhood, on the same block, or in the same house, girls and boys grow up in different worlds." These gender differences in ways of talking have been observed in children as young as three years of age, about the time language is developed. While little girls talk to be liked; little boys often talk to boast. Little girls make requests; little boys make demands. Little girls speak to create harmony; little boys prolong conflict. Little girls talk more indirectly; little boys talk directly. Little girls talk more with words; little boys use more actions. While boys and girls both want to get their way, they use language differently to do so.

In the well-researched book Brain Sex, geneticist Anne Moir and co-author David Jessel state, "Male and female brains are structured and process information differently. Because of this, Dr. Moir urges that we stop the "battle of the sexes" since neither are right or better, we're just "wired" differently. Thus in communicating, it would help if men and women stop judging and trying to convert each other, accept our different abilities and skills as complementary, and blend them cooperatively to manage workplace and life issues.

Male-Female Communication Characteristics

Here are some general variations in the way men and women communicate.

  • Men focus on power / rank / status. Women focus on relationships.
  • Men talk to give information or report. Women talk to collect information or gain rapport.
  • Men talk about things (business, sports, food). Women talk about people / relationships.
  • Men focus on facts, reason and logic. Women focus on feelings, senses and meaning.
  • Men thrive on competing and achieving. Women thrive on harmony and relating.
  • Men "know" by analyzing and figuring out. Women "know" by intuiting.
  • Men are more assertive. Women are more cooperative.
  • Men tend to be focused, specific, logical. Women are holistic and organic.
  • Men are at ease with order, rules and structure. Women with fluidity.
  • Men immediately want to get working on a project. Women tend to ask lots of questions before beginning a project.
  • Men want to think. Women want to feel.

Strategies for Bridging the Gender Communication Gap

  • Information issues. According to Sandra Beckwith, author of the book, Why Can't a Man Be More Like a Woman,? "Women gather information by asking questions, but men view question-asking as a sign of weakness." Now we know why men won't ask for directions! Men need to understand this information- gathering process and listen to the questions. Women must be sure men have adequate information, because if they don't understand, they may not ask for help.
  • Managing metaphors. Women frequently use stories or illustrations about home or relationships. Men tend to rely on metaphors about sports or war. This sets the stage for miscommunication. Women often do not follow the touchdown analogies, while men would have trouble following home decorating stories. We should avoid simply gender-reversing descriptions to communicate. Instead, consider using gender-neutral images (weather, nature, movies, etc.)
  • Power struggles. Women tend to be more cooperative focusing on relationships. However men tend to be more assertive and focus on rank and status in an organization. Women see men being too focused on power, while men see women as weak. In this case, each gender can learn from each other. Men can focus more on a collaborative approach. Women need to be more assertive.
  • Getting to the point. Women like to tell and hear stories, including methods of coping with distress and finding solutions. It's their way of connecting and building the relationships. Men don't want the stories, they just want to get to the point. They don't care about the route, just the destination. The problem is that each gender becomes impatient. Women push for details while men look for the big- picture message. Each gender can benefit from the other's communication style. Men need to explain their thinking and not simply jump to conclusions. Women need to get to the point in a speedier manner.
  • Facts & feelings. Women are generally more comfortable talking about their feelings. Men prefer to focus on the facts and skip the feelings. This can result in significant communication problems. Ever type of communication has both an intellectual and an emotional element. It is important for both genders too see there are two parts at play. A man can increase the feeling quotient by making this type of statement: "I know this project has been very stressful for you. Let's talk about ways to manage the difficulties we're facing." A woman can dim the emotional intensity by saying: "I think we need to discuss the major issues blocking the implementation of the new plan."

Creating Gender Communication Harmony

The goal of this article is not "Men, just put with up women" and "Women, just tolerate men." Rather, we find that men and women do indeed have different communication styles. However, neither are right or wrong, just different. We need to pay close attention to gender differences so we can untangle the gender communications knots. This will not only help get the job done more efficiently, this will also create a more positive workplace atmosphere.

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