Cross-Gender Communication Differences

Understanding Them Can Help You Be More Effective

Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce Newsletter

Women approach sharing information, listening, making decisions, and handling conflicts and disagreements differently than men do. Understanding some of these differences in cross-gender communication styles will give you more choices in how to act.

Giving/Sharing Information

  • Men enjoy giving information as a way to show expertise.
  • Women like sharing information to build relationships.

Deborah Tannen in “You Just Don’t Understand” refers to these communication style differences as “report talk” by men and “rapport talk” by women. Men expect to give a “report” to enhance their own power. Women use the opportunity of sharing information to help others gain the same level of knowledge as they have, equalize the playing field and build rapport with others. In using “report talk” men frequently interrupt and compete for airtime; women wait to speak until others are heard.

Tip for the Workplace: When giving or sharing information, ask yourself what result you want. If your goal is to build relationships and develop rapport, continue to engage in “rapport talk ” by letting others share the floor.

If, however, your goal is to demonstrate your expertise, engage in “report talk.” It will increase your credibility so you can be listened to with respect. Look for opportunities to express yourself rather than waiting for others to talk. If someone interrupts you, make a declarative statement like “I haven’t finished with what I am saying.” No apologies needed.

Listening

  • Women listen to gain understanding of a speaker’s experience.
  • Men listen to solve problems.

Let’s look at an example to see how these gender experiences might express themselves at work. Susan says to her colleagues John and Carol: “I’m so frustrated by the marketing department’s refusal to get the ad agency’s proposal back to me. I told them I needed it by COB yesterday and I still haven’t received it….” John’s response might be something like, “Well, Susan, contact the VP immediately ” Carol’s response, however, may sound like this: ” Well, that is pretty inconsiderate of them, isn’t it? What do you want to do about it?” See how John is listening with an ear to solving Susan’s problem, where Carol is listening to gain understanding.

Tip for the Workplace: To improve listening, find out from the speaker what she/he wants you to do. Ask your speaker directly,” Do you want me to listen or give you advice?” It’s the perfect question.

Making Decisions/Giving Orders

  • Men tend to make unilateral decisions and are more comfortable giving and taking orders (from higher level males, in particular).
  • Women tend to seek input and consensus and are more comfortable with giving and taking suggestions from men and women.

When women say, “Do you think we should do this?” it sends confusing signals. Women will hear this statement as asking for input and taking suggestions. Men, however, will hear this as wishy-washy and wonder if the speaker lacks confidence. Men usually don’t feel it necessary to check with others before deciding and taking action. Women, on the other hand, usually expect to be consulted about decisions and changes and may take it as an affront if not.

Tips for the Workplace: When making decisions state that you are gathering input, but make it clear that you will be the ultimate decision-maker. When seeking consensus, state that goal: your colleagues will feel more comfortable with making suggestions.

Handling conflicts and disagreements

  • Men tend to argue more and find it interesting to disagree.
  • Women more often seek agreement and see disagreement as more threatening to relationships.

Let’s look at another example from the workplace. When George says, ” Let’s go with Frank’s option of building this machine,” men feel comfortable saying, “I disagree. I think that’s the wrong way to go.” Sheryl, however, might respond to George’s statement with “I think we need more time to further explore both options” to support areas of agreement. Men sometimes engage in conflict and disagreements for the fun of it, sometimes to jockey for power. Regardless of the reason, they feel more comfortable with conflict. Women, however, tend to feel uneasy with conflicts and avoid them.

Tips for the Workplace: Recognize the value of conflict and allow yourself and others to take a strong position. Try to reframe the conflict as more ritual than real and it might not make more comfortable.

An additional resource on these and other cross gender communication styles is “Talking From 9 to 5″ by Deborah Tannen. You’ll find a wealth of information that you can apply to your communication style to become more effective.

© Kari Uman 2004