Men and Women Really Do Communicate Differently

I like to think I’m a good communicator but after last week I might just need to rethink that a bit.

However, the fact that I’m shouldering the responsibility for any tension is probably a typical female reaction. Chances are though that it has less to do with me and is more about the fact that men and women simply communicate differently. They also use differing processes for decision making and leadership. 

Until recently, the team I’ve been working with has been predominantly female, albeit quite diverse in terms of personalities and skills. Their passion for the work we’re doing in community leadership, in combination with shared values and strong communication skills, has resulted in a rare team that is harmonious, productive, and innovative.

This success has contributed to a new, and generously funded initiative, that built and expanded on the learning from our original work. Now we face the daunting task of integrating the two initiatives and figuring out how it all fits together within the organization. Of course all of this needs to be accomplished while keeping everything moving at its normal breakneck speed.

The first clue should have been our differing ideas about the agenda for the meeting. As it turns out the men approached this as being about the need for a business plan that would prioritize tasks and timelines in the first three months. On the other hand, the women saw the first priority as the need to build trusted relationships among those on the expanded team by discussing our respective backgrounds and values. Only then did they see the team collectively determining next steps.

Research suggests this emphasis on tasks versus relationships is a key difference between men and women. Since women generally have a tendency to be more relationship oriented, they accomplish tasks by building relationships first. Once the relationships are in place, they are comfortable asking and involving others in getting things done. Men tend to be more task focused and jump right in, building their relationships as they work on the actual tasks.

In our case, I must say the men were quite patient as the women shared their experiences in order to build the common ground. However, I also sensed they were anxious to get down to what they saw as the real business. Perhaps next time it will be clearer that when women tell a story, they’re building a team. As for the women, their compromise could perhaps be that of being more succinct.

Our focus on inclusion and building relationships also meant we spent a lot of time talking about problems and solving them collaboratively. Often the female emphasis was on feelings and communications whereas the guys, perhaps because their values were more heavily weighted to results, moved to solutions right away. Also, whereas much of our processing was out loud, theirs seemed to be internal. Because of this, the experts suggest women often think that men are being unresponsive to suggestions. On the flip side, men often think that women don’t know what they’re doing or are looking for approval when they process out loud. Some men may even think that a woman’s way of processing is a sign of weakness.

Our leadership styles were also quite different. Because as women we are more relationship oriented and had been working in a pretty flat hierarchy that reflects shared leadership, we struggled with their need for a traditional and more hierarchical staffing model. Whereas our tendency was to be open and inclusive, their decision making typically involved those closest to them at their own level.

There were also some differences in actual communication styles. Although the women were quick to acknowledge good ideas, regardless of the source, the men remained much more neutral, rarely acknowledging anyone’s good ideas.

That same neutrality created some confusion for me. Even though I know I put good ideas on the table, I honestly wasn’t sure if they were understood or received. I may have even repeated myself several times because I wasn’t sure my ideas had been heard. Probably not a good idea, as men may be more likely to interpret that as me talking too much or being insecure.

So what did all of this tell me?

Like most things in life, there is no one best way to ensure effective communication among men and women. We can’t stereotype all men or all women and of course not everyone fits these generalizations.  However, both men and women need to be aware of each other’s styles of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, in order to avoid miscommunication and to work better together.

Being aware of our respective stereotypes and bias is perhaps the first step.

We also need to recognize that many different styles of both communication and leadership can be effective. By learning about and using both male and female styles, we’ll all be better equipped to deal with the complexity and diversity of situations in today’s world.

Posted on 03-23-08

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