In my recent post Can Women Run Game on Men? I discussed the book Why Men Love Bitches. There was one particular piece of advice that I thought deserved special attention, because it’s a trap that women frequently fall into.
“A [women with high self-esteem] is polite but clear, and communicates very directly, in much the same way that men communicate with one another.”
This is critically important, and I think that women stand to benefit in their relationships if they can learn to communicate in a way that a man can understand. Men often express that women are emotional, irrational, fond of drama and conflict. We nag, whine, make demands. We can’t let something go, we need to discuss it ad infinitum for hours on end.
You know why. Because every woman reading this recognizes herself in that description. I certainly do, it’s in my nature. The problem is, our communication style often prevents us from getting what we want. We can shout our demands, but if our audience is alarmed and baffled by our approach, we’ve lost before we’ve even made our case.
There are three highly respected experts in the field of gender communication. Their areas of study differ slightly, but their conclusions are compatible. I’ve condensed a great deal of study into the salient points here, in a bottom-line way (just like a man would):
I. Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics, Author of You Just Don’t Understand
Tannen believes that men and women differ in the focus, or driving force, behind their communication. According to Tannen, men converse with a focus on achieving social status and avoiding failure, while women focus on achieving personal connection and avoiding social isolation. Men want to report, women want rapport. Tannen observed that,
“For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They’re friends with the boys they do things with.
Women cannot understand the resistance men seem to have when asked for assistance or consideration of some kind or another. Women must remember the above scenario and understand that, for men, doing what they’re asked to do means they have lost status in that relationship.
Tannen discusses this issue further:
“Women want men to do what we want. We want them to want to do what we want, because that’s what we do. If a woman perceives that something she’s doing is really hurting a man, she wants to stop doing it. If she perceives that he really wants her to do something, she wants to do it. She thinks that that’s love and he should feel the same way about her. But men have a gut-level resistance to doing what they’re told, to doing what someone expects them to do. It’s the opposite response of what women have.”
Since women often think in terms of closeness and support, they struggle to preserve intimacy. Men, concerned with status, tend to focus more on independence. These traits can lead women and men to starkly different views of the same situation.
Men, on the other hand, are less comfortable discussing their feelings. Many men don’t like to talk about emotions and feelings. Men like to talk about current events, business, and personal accomplishments.
Women think it is important to discuss how they feel about a problem. Men, however, prefer to come to a solution.
Men often think that women are complaining, because women want to continue talking about their feelings. Men offer a solution to a problem, and then want to talk about something else.
Men grow up in a world in which a conversation is often a contest, either to achieve the upper hand or to prevent other people from pushing them around. For women, however, talking is often a way to exchange confirmation and support.
Women formulate their requests as proposals rather than orders. Their style of talking is a way of getting others to do what they want, but by winning agreement first. With men this tactic often backfires, because they feel manipulated and respond more resentfully than they would to a straightforward request.
II. John Gray, PhD, Author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus
Gray distinguishes the overall styles of communication in the sexes:
Use more words to express more feelings
Use conversation to think through a problem and work toward a solution
Give feedback with tact, tentativeness and sensitivity to the other person’s feelings
Often change the topic in the middle of a conversation, then return to it later
Use fewer words and express fewer feelings
Think through a problem privately, then express the solution as the bottom line
Give feedback directly and with bluntness, without the intention that it should be taken personally
Men tend to finish one topic before going on to the next
III. Lillian Glass, PhD, Speech Pathologist, Author of He Says, She Says: Closing the Gap Between the Sexes
Glass has some unique insights to add:
Women tend to take verbal rejection more personally than men.
Women are more likely than men to ask for help rather than figure things out on their own.
Men appear less intuitive and aware of details than women.
Women have a more emotional approach to problems. Men have a more analytical approach.
Men use fewer voice tones and facial expressions while communicating than women do.
Men make more direct statements; there’s less “beating around the bush” with men than with women.
Men are NOT going to learn to be all touchy-feely, expressing their emotions, dragging out the convo for hours to find out how you really feel. It’s not in their nature, and would compromise their pride. That’s a non-starter. If you want to be understood by a guy, and get him to consider your point of view, possibly even give you what you are asking for, you need to learn to communicate like a guy.
I learned this lesson through experience when I was in my early 20s. My college years were spent mostly with two guys. The first was a classic Alpha, emotionally reticent. All of our conflicts followed the same pattern. Me getting upset, throwing a fit, crying, and making all kinds of drama. Him sitting there stoically, waiting for my emotional display to run its course. He then apologized. I grudgingly accepted his apology. We had makeup sex. This rather dysfunctional pattern carried us through most of college. I never fell in love with him, and I’m pretty sure it’s because he had so little he was willing to share. When I broke up with him he was devastated, much to my surprise. Only then could he tell me that he thought I was the woman he wanted to marry eventually. We had spent all that time on different planets.
My other college relationship was with a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve, and made more drama in a year than I’d made in the previous three. He was wildly passionate, jealous, possessive and intense. Our fights were “take no prisoners” affairs, and the makeup sex was really great this time around. However, I began to want more than this state of always being at cross purposes and misunderstanding. It was draining, and I was emotionally exhausted.
In my first job out of college, I began seeing someone I worked with, and I fell head over heels for this guy, who was several years older. We kept our relationship a secret, and things moved pretty fast. He said, “I love you,” and I felt the same way. After a couple of months, we went to a work party at a local bar. There I proceeded to watch him flirt like crazy with all the other single women in the office for a couple of hours, with only the most cursory attention directed my way. I was tempted to walk up and throw my drink in his face, but instead I quietly left and went home. A couple of hours later he tried calling, but I didn’t answer. The next day at work he ambushed me wearing an expression of dread. He clearly didn’t want to talk, but he knew he had a rescue mission to perform. He started speaking, and I held up one hand.
“What? Let me explain. Listen, people here don’t know about us, they…”
Exasperated sigh. “What do you want me to say?”
“There’s nothing you need to say. Your actions told me what I needed to know.”
“Susan, come on. (rolls eyes) What did my actions tell you?”
“That you need the validation of attention from other women.”
“That’s not true!”
“That’s the way I see it. I don’t think this is going to work out.”
At that point I walked away. All of this was said in a completely calm and neutral tone. He was visibly stunned. That night he called and asked if I would hear him out. I said OK.
“You’re the first woman who hasn’t yelled at me when I screwed up.”
“What would be the point? You sent a pretty clear message, I really don’t have any questions for you.”
“I’ve thought a lot about what you said. You were right. Look, can we just try this again? We need to figure out how to handle this in the office. I know I was a jerk, but I want to try again.”
“If you ever try to make me jealous again, or act with such total disregard for my feelings, we’re over.”
“OK, fine. That’s fair.”
I didn’t have the energy for a high-maintenance relationship, so I just talked about my bottom line expectations. It was the most successful I’d ever been in a conflict with a man, because the way I spoke to him was familiar, I was speaking his language. He never did that again, and our relationship was free of drama, for the most part.
It was a revelation, learning accidentally that I could make myself understood in so few words. I’ve pretty much stuck with that approach. I won’t claim I never raise my voice or get exasperated with my husband, but our disagreements are always brief. When we have conflict, we dispassionately negotiate a solution. It works.
You’ve got to be prepared to speak clearly about what you want. That means being tough but succinct. I guarantee you’ll get better results.
You will not always get what you want. He may say no. But at least he won’t go home with a migraine and the sense that he dodged a bullet.