In a very interesting talk I attended this week titled “She Says / He Says”, Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in the US, spoke about her research into the different ways in which women and men communicate. She has researched this subject for decades and has published numerous books and articles.
As a workplace mediator, this topic is of particular interest to me. Every mediation that I do involves a communication breakdown and often, before this breakdown, severe miscommunication that has either triggered or perpetuated the conflict that the parties seek mediation for. Communication between the parties is often so difficult that they cannot actually hear what the other is saying.
Professor Tannen was clear in that we cannot generalise across the board and that our communication styles are also influenced by other factors besides gender, such as race, sexuality, class, religion, ethnicity etc. However, her research points to some interesting commonalities between how most women and most men communicate, even at a very early age. This is evident even at nursery, where girls are more likely to face each other when they speak, whereas boys tend to speak by doing things together and rarely maintain eye contact. Similarly, teenage girls will look at each other when they speak, whereas teenage boys, even when speaking about very revealing and personal issues, rarely face each other. This continues as we age and may be the reason why women are sometimes known to say that their male partners aren’t listening to them – because they assume that listening is connected to maintaining eye contact with the person who is speaking.
Another example of our different communication styles is that women tend to communicate things less directly than men. This means that at times women may say things indirectly which men don’t understand because they would have simply said what they meant without any “coding” around it. She gave the example of the dynamic of mother-daughter communication. When her mother says to her “Don’t you like your hair shorter?” she hears this as criticism, whereas her mother’s intention is to show that she cares.
Professor Tannen was clear that the point of her research is not to stereotype women and men, but rather to analyse and understand the different ways in which we communicate. She says that there is no right way to communicate, but there are different ways to communicate. Understanding this, and not judging or making assumptions about other people’s ways of communicating is an important lesson for all of us, especially those of us who work in the field of workplace mediation. After all, people often get into conflict with each other because they don’t like the way the other communicates with them, or they misinterpret what the other person is trying to say.