Building a Relationship or Getting the Job Done
One of the most obvious differences in communication is through the use of language. According to Dr. Deborah Tannen, women tend to use conversation as a tool to build relationships, establish connections and to share experiences. This is referred to as “rapport talk.” The purpose is not to convey a particular message, but rather to develop and build a relationship. On the other hand, men tend to rely upon “report talk” the purpose of which is to share information. Thus, when a woman undertakes a conversation designed to engender rapport and a man understands it as a “report”, the man responds by trying to fix what he perceives to be the problem. However, the woman may feel that the man is trying to tell her what to do and is frustrated and disappointed because she expected empathy, not help.
Oftentimes, professionals (lawyers and mediators) may misunderstand the difference between the two types of speech. The professional may assume that the client needs to have something “fixed” rather than the client’s need simply to be understood. Conversely, the client may want something done immediately and/or a solution proposed, and the professional simply listens empathetically. One solution is for the professional to further inquire of the client as to the client’s purpose and/or goal of sharing the information.
“But What Do You REALLY Want?”
Another example of linguistic differences is “hedging,” which is more often used by women than men. A woman may tend to downplay certainty of a particular outcome by suggesting “perhaps it would be better to try to find another solution,” whereas a man is more likely to downplay doubt and be more direct, “My client absolutely rejects that offer. It’s too low.” A woman may use hedging even when dealing with someone who is in a lower power position than herself. This is done is order to achieve her goals, but also to maintain a relationship. Men, however, tend to use hedging when dealing with people of higher power than themselves, but not with people of equal or lower power.
As professionals, we need to understand the difference between the use of hedging and actual uncertainty. While a lawyer can capitalize on the insecurity of the other party and create an opportunity for his or her client’s gain, the lawyer could also be misreading signals. Also, a mediator may see a “hedger” as someone who is indecisive and unsure and therefore may try to seek a concession from the “path of least resistance.” However, hedging does not mean that a person is indecisive – simply that they are trying to soften criticism, maintain a relationship, or help the other party save face. Therefore, a “hedger” may resent the implication that they are unsure, weak, timid, or insecure about their own position. The lawyer or mediator may be actually creating more resistance with the “hedger” by pushing him or her to make concessions! Professionals need to listen more clearly and ask more questions before they can determine if someone is hedging or is, instead, simply unsure.
The Ritual of the Fight
Ritual opposition is the process of debate, the art of the fight and the enthusiasm of mustering all your arguments in order to defeat the other side’s position. While women tend to hedge more than men, men tend to use ritual opposition more than women (except in the world of trial lawyers, where both sexes may excel in this style of argumentation). True ritual opposition is not personal attacks or denigrating the other side – but winning an argument through persuasive skills and logic. But, there is no attention paid to building rapport, creating a relationship, or allowing the other party to save face. Therefore, it may be misinterpreted as a personal attack or insult by someone who is not used to this style of negotiation. Lawyers and mediators should normalize the concepts of ritual opposition and hedging with their clients so that misunderstandings do not occur.
Would You Please Stop Interrupting Me!
Gender differences may not only dictate how the parties speak, but how they listen as well. Women tend to use more “insertions” - asking short questions, nodding, etc. while the other party is speaking. This is done in order to seek out more information and to show support and understanding by the listener to the speaker and is intended as a validation and encouragement. Women are generally more accustomed to this style of overlapping speech. However, men may see this overlapping speech not as reinforcement and empathy, but as interruption. If a man wants to “report talk” and get his point across, he finds overlapping speech annoying and disruptive and may say, “Just let me know when you are finished interrupting me so that I can finish my sentence.” What was intended as validation and rapport has backfired!
Just Say You’re Sorry
Think back to your childhood. Who among us doesn’t remember their mother apologizing when it rained at a picnic? But, for a woman, this apology is not accepting responsibility (she obviously did not cause the rain!) but is expressing concern, empathy, or sadness about something that has happened. By contrast, men will usually only apologize when something is their responsibility or their error. Thus, a woman apologizes when the elevator door shuts on someone who is trying to get in (even if she is in the back row and can’t stop the door from closing), because she feels sorry that something has occurred; the man would probably not apologize unless he was in a position to have kept the elevator door open, but did not reach it quickly enough. This causes confusion between the sexes. Men may assume a woman is accepting fault and taking responsibility when she apologizes, but she may simply be trying to restore a relationship or build rapport. A woman may assume that a man is uncaring if he doesn’t apologize – but if he is not personally at fault for what has occurred he will see no reason to apologize.
As mediators, we often see the opportunity for an apology to build bridges and settle cases. But, before determining how easy or how hard it will be to get an apology, it would certainly be beneficial to explore the different kinds of apologies that people may be seeking.
Good Jokes Among Friends
Have you heard the one about the blonde? It is true that a woman’s sense of humor tends to be more self-deprecating and internal. A woman might say, “You will never believe what I did the other day!” whereas a man’s humor tends to be more external, “You will never believe what Joe did the other day!” Women tell jokes about themselves; men tend to tell jokes about others. Again, these gender differences may cause confusion or misunderstanding as a woman may appear to be lacking in confidence and self-esteem and “putting herself down” when she uses internal humor. A man may be seen as making a personal attack when he mentions the foibles or misdeeds of someone else, instead of the joke he intended. Additionally, certain topics of humor are acceptable if discussed among women, but if a man attempts the same joke with women, it will backfire. Conversely, there are jokes to be shared among men that are not humorous if spoken to men by a woman. Humor is often used to dilute tension, diffuse anger, and to build rapport, but humor passes through gender filters. What may be intended may not be what is heard.
Putting It All Together
A skillful and sensitive negotiator will listen for and be attentive to the different styles of communication and language used by men and women. An understanding of these differences can help mediators translate the way in which someone is speaking, so that the message can truly be heard by the other party rather than being lost due to miscommunication. And, if a man hedges and a woman uses ritual opposition, don’t be surprised – we are all individuals, after all and generalities are just that. Studying gender communication is extremely helpful in navigating the minefields of miscommunication, however it is also imperative that we do not take generalizations and make them into stereotypes which can create more problems. The next time you are in conversation with your spouse, mediating between a man and a woman, or representing a client, see if your enhanced knowledge helps to promote a more effective means to resolving the dispute. And if it rains at the picnic, see who apologizes next year.
This article would not have been possible without the pioneering work by Deborah Tannen in the field of gender communication. Two excellent books, “You Just Don’t Understand” and “Talking from Nine to Five” are essential resources for mediators and lawyers interested in gender communication.
This article is also based on Nina Meierding’s workshops on gender and culture. It should be noted that the role of culture (and how it impacts gender communications) has not been dealt with in this article due to space limitations. For more information see www.mediate.com/ninameierding .