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Mars, Venus or Earth – do we need to mind the gender communication gap?

For several months I’ve been looking into the issue of communication between men and women, seeking to understand if there are any common themes or barriers. I asked my 500 closest friends for anecdotal evidence, and ‘consulted’ a number of experts. Having analysed everything I’ve heard and read, and putting aside instances of overt sexism, rudeness and prejudice (which are not communication issues), here is my conclusion, followed by 13 things to do differently as a result:

Good communication is a complex, subtle, sophisticated and challenging area. It’s not a birth right but a set of skills which need to be learned and practised. Every individual starts from a different place, with certain innate strengths and weaknesses, and while there are some common themes in male/female communication styles and preferences, there are no absolutes. Stereotypes are not helpful or valid.

 Being an effective communicator is about putting the ‘audience’s needs above our own natural style/preferences. It’s not about fundamentally changing ourselves. It’s about remaining authentic while finessing our style for different situations and ‘audiences’. (We instinctively do this in the different ways we communicate with our parents, our children and our bosses).

 So, to succeed, we need to be more conscious, careful and deliberate in the way we communicate. And, since people’s natural styles/preferences are far from set in stone, we are able to develop a new range of tools and habits. Think of skiing – we initially just learn to get down a slope. So, we can ski. But then we finesse those skills, acquire further techniques to be able to adapt to moguls, ice, off piste. Now we can really ski. And the key word is adapt.

Here are the key things I have learned (to avoid the stereotyping trap, you’ll find an irritating overuse of the word ‘some’)

From Dr Geoff Bird, Oxford Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience:

  • That there is no difference in the structure of male and female brains at birth but there is a difference in connectivity (male brain better connected within each side; in females the two sides of the brain are better connected with each other).
  • Learning new skills, acquiring new habits, changes the shape of the brain. New connections are formed. A UCL team carried out research on trainee taxi drivers before and after they had acquired The Knowledge. From MRI scans they saw that the part of the brain related to memory (hippocampus) grew bigger.
  • There’s evidence that differences in eg spacial ability (women and men navigate differently – women via landmarks, men via geometry) are hormonally driven. Hormone therapy in humans changes their spacial ability.
  • Also, our brains reflect our environment/lifestyle/experience – in 1947 males showed a huge advantage in abstract reasoning. Now, they are equal or females have a slight advantage.

From other sources:

Women talk and share personal information to make connections, and to relieve stress (sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls if ‘rapport talk’) whereas men favour ‘report talk’ – sharing impersonal information, to make a connection.

BUT, interestingly, Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In reveals how her male boss favoured a few moments of ‘rapport talk’ before he was ready for ‘report talk’. She had to finesse her communication style to accommodate this.

Deborah Tannen also suggests that men are more comfortable with public speaking while women thrive more with ‘private’ speaking.

Research shows that men speak more often and for longer in groups. The anecdotal evidence I received certainly supports this – several times I heard of senior male individuals dominating group conversations and therefore silencing younger, more junior women (and no doubt men too).

From Mars/Venus, I concluded that miscommunication between men and women occurs primarily at times of stress, when one party is in need of support/help. There is often an inappropriate response and a failure to give the other party what they need.

Some men tend to use more forceful language and volume. Women often read this as a definitive statement so they back down and withdraw from the debate.

Some women favour a more collaborative style of communication to arrive at a solution whereas men prefer to get straight to the solution. Sometimes this consultative style is seen as hesitant or indecisive or lacking confidence. In reality, they are gathering knowledge and engaging everyone. Eg – woman presents an idea to a client in this style. Client hesitates. Advice is reiterated by a male colleague (in a more forceful manner) – client happy.

Some women are offended by criticism/challenge even when it’s not personal.

Some women are more subtle when making requests – “if you have time, could you….”  Some men just ask.

So what does all this mean? What new habits can we establish, to be ever more skilful and confident communicators, at home and at work? (now we’re talking about people, not men or women)

  1. Every piece of communication is about/for/because of the audience, not us. Communicate in a way which suits them. If we are failing to get our message across, it’s our fault, not theirs.
  2. Be careful about offering unsolicited advice or help. Some people don’t like it.
  3. Understand that when some people share an issue or a problem with you, they’re not looking for a solution. They just need to offload. Your role is to listen.
  4. Avoid invalidating someone else’s feelings of anger/frustration/hurt by trying to change/fix those feelings. It’s more helpful to acknowledge their feelings and empathise with them. Parents often do this with children by telling them that “there’s nothing to be scared of”.
  5. If you need help, ask for it. Don’t expect people to notice that you need help, and then be resentful when it’s not offered.
  6. When communicating with a group of people, remember that some nod to agree, others are nodding “maybe”. Don’t worry if you don’t get verbal or non verbal (facial expressions, eye contact) cues to indicate that they are absorbed. People often have ‘flat’ listening faces which belie their level of engagement.
  7. Learn to take criticism/challenge in a less personal way, and to deal with it more effectively. Develop practical techniques that allow you to respect others’ opinions, buy thinking time, defend your position and offer a way forward for the debate.
  8. Based on Steve Peters’ Chimp Paradox and his square of communication – choose the right time to communicate. The right time for them, not you.
  9. Where you are leading a group communication situation, work hard to manage the dominant individuals and empower the quieter ones.
  10. Don’t assume that being forceful/aggressive is a more effective way to achieve your objectives. Arguably, Sarah Montague is a more effective interviewer than Jeremy Paxman.
  11. But if you haven’t yet got an assertive style of communication in your armoury, get one.
  12. Don’t assume that because someone expresses an idea forcefully, it’s the best idea. Learn to turn the volume down and focus on the idea. Consider its merits as if it had been whispered to you.
  13. Know when to lead with your ‘headline’ and follow up with evidence (or vice versa), according to the audience’s preferences.
  14. Learn verbal editing skills so that you can deliver your ideas in a clear and concise manner, when required.

Thank you for all your interesting and useful contributions to this. I look forward to continuing the conversation – whenever you’re ready, and definitely not when you’re reading the newspaper!