Gender Intelligence in Relationships

3 Ways Men and Women Communicate Differently

Deanna Devey Nov 14, 2019

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

As a world-renowned expert on gender issues, Barbara Annis, founder and CEO of Gender Intelligence Group, has traveled the globe conducting thousands of workshops to help men and women improve their interactions with one another. No matter the culture, she finds universal communication breakdowns and misinterpretations.

For instance, men and women often interpret the same words differently. One example is the word “yes.” For men, “yes” means agreement. For women, it means she’s following the conversation but doesn’t necessarily agree.

“Often men will say, ‘Wait, I thought we already had agreement on this,’” Annis says. “But women, who use ‘yes’ as a form of active listening, will say, ‘No, we did not agree.’”

The result is men and women often misunderstand each other. “We create an illusion that we’ve actually heard one another when we haven’t,” Annis says.

To avoid misunderstandings, Annis says it’s important to understand communication differences between men and women. Here are three key distinctions.

Transactional vs. Relational

As part of her work, Annis studies the neurological differences between men and women. One of those distinctions is greater connectivity between the right and left sides of women’s brains and more widely distributed emotional centers. As a result, women focus on relationships more than men.

“When a colleague is experiencing personal problems, women will want to demonstrate concern and empathy so they’ll ask for details and discuss the problem,” Annis says. “Men will often do the opposite. If it’s directly spoken to them, they’ll try and fix it. If not, they’ll avoid it altogether with the intention of giving the person independence and privacy.”

At one of Annis’ workshops, a woman told a story about the workplace reaction to her cancer diagnosis. Her female colleagues constantly asked how she was doing, while her male boss sent her a card and flowers but never talked about it.

“After learning about the gender differences, she said, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s respecting my independence and privacy. He did all these silent actions but didn’t verbalize on a daily basis,’” Annis says.

The woman realized her original view — that her boss didn’t care — was inaccurate. It’s an example of why Annis believes making assumptions can lead to miscommunication.

“It’s really about understanding these stylistic differences,” Annis says. “If we know we have these tendencies, we won’t misinterpret one another.”

Directive vs. Suggestive

A common complaint among women is suggesting an idea, having a man restate it and then having the man get credit for it. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ran into this problem.

“Madeleine would suggest an idea as a form of collaborating around it even though she’d really thought it through,” Annis says. “One of the guys would hear it as a really good idea and reframe it in a directive way and it was heard.”

As natural collaborators, women may express an idea as a suggestion to get others’ input and start the conversation. Men, however, may misinterpret this approach as uncertainty.  

“Men tend to be very direct when bringing an idea, saying ‘I think we should do this,’” Annis says. “Women tend to give context first, and men look at it and say, ‘What’s the action here?’”

Annis suggests women try reframing the conversation. “Don’t change your style but just say upfront, ‘I’ve really thought this through, and I would love to get your input,’” Annis says. “The concept of declaring your intentions is one of the most powerful tools you can apply.” 

Externalize vs. Internalize

Men often attribute problems to outward factors while women tend to take challenges personally. For example, if something goes wrong, women wonder what they could have done differently. Men may misinterpret this as women worrying too much or being insecure.

Meanwhile, men will depersonalize and attribute what went wrong to outside factors. Women may misinterpret this as not caring.

To avoid misunderstanding, Annis suggests standing in each other’s shoes, testing assumptions and checking in on others’ intentions.

“It’s really about moving from misinterpreting each other to understanding each other,” Annis says.

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