If you talk to other people and are either a man or a woman, you need to read this!

The ability to communicate well, to get your message across to customers, colleagues, and friends is hugely important! And listening and interpreting what you hear and see correctly is a vital tool in every area of life. (see www.changingpeople.co.uk for more on listening skills)

Did you know that there are powerful differences in how men and women communicate which can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication all round? So if you want to be sure that you are interpreting the signals properly read on!

Fact and Fiction
Much has been written about the differences between men and women; it’s been a topic of interest since time began. And for almost every theory saying one thing you can usually find another to contradict it.

Let me reassure you right away that what follows is based on research undertaken by academics, who directly observed the behaviour of men and women in general conversation and business meetings. I know you will find it interesting!

I draw no conclusions here as to why these differences exist but merely note them so that you can make use of this important information in your day to day life and consider how you can make it work for you.

Nod Means Yes...or Does It?
Research in the Western world has found significant differences in meaning between men and women in the use of that little head movement.

Generally speaking, if a man nods his head in a meeting he is signalling his assent to what is being said. He agrees with the speaker and is showing it. If he doesn’t agree he won’t nod. That’s pretty straightforward.

Women, on the other hand, nod their heads quite a lot when listening but they are not doing this to say they agree with what has been said. They are saying, in general, ‘I understand what you are saying, do go on’. Maybe that’s not quite so straightforward.

In my training seminars I observe this often; the women give encouraging nods and half smiles and often make little ‘mm’ noises to let me know they are paying attention.

Men, on the other hand, tend not to give those cues, unless they are in agreement with what I am saying. I used to misinterpret this lack of visual encouragement for lack of interest, which it was not, until I learned to read the signs.

So What?
Does it matter that different genders use different verbal cues?
Well, it can matter a lot! Imagine being in a meeting. If you are a man who has been speaking on a topic you may have seen your female colleagues nodding away at you, you may have, quite logically, interpreted this as agreement with what you have said.

The women however, may have merely been polite listeners. They have heard you out, let you have your turn, but now they wish to say something contrary to the argument that you have just made.

As a man this puzzles you. Surely they have been nodding their agreement all the way through so why now do they suddenly choose to be difficult?

As a woman, not receiving any encouraging cues to keep talking, you may fall silent, or become irritated and think you are not being listened to.

Neither interpretation may be correct and requires clarification.

Interestingly, there is also a lot of research to show that females are more likely to change their behaviour and become more male-like in mixed groups rather than try to change the norm.

Interrupting is Rude –or is it Power?
Generally speaking, when we have a conversation with someone we ‘take turns’. There is a convention that when speaking we wait for the speaker to finish and then we have our turn. There are interruptions and overlap but there is a tacitly agreed acceptable amount, which varies according to circumstances.

For example, if a friend is having a bad time we may spend the larger part of a conversation listening to them than would be usual, without speaking ourselves. We learn to do this from an early age so we can actually have conversations, not just chaotic babbling!

There are some fascinating differences in behaviour between women talking to women, men talking to men, and men and women talking together.

Broadly speaking when we are talking in same gender conversations (male to male, female to female), ‘turn taking’ is very evident. There are a few interruptions and overlaps (starting your turn as the previous speaker is finishing) but they are not overly intrusive.

Women Talk Too Much?
Recorded conversations between men and women show something very different however. In almost all cases men were found to be more likely to interrupt women disruptively and women were less likely to interrupt men. Women still observed the turn taking rule, even more rigidly sometimes, becoming quieter than in same gender conversations.

In the world of work this can make it very difficult for women to get their point across and for men to know what women are actually thinking or have to contribute.
This has been observed in study after study.

Other researchers went on to investigate if this was still an issue with senior women in business. They found that even when a woman was of higher status in an organisation than a man she was interrupted more frequently by the man. In 85% of recorded conversations a man interrupted a woman and kept the floor.

This same phenomenon has been observed on TV and radio chat shows where there is a male host.

Doctor Knows Best
A study of doctor patient conversations showed that it is the norm for doctors to interrupt patients rather than patients to interrupt doctors, except, you’ve guessed it, where the doctor is a woman. Then the male patient interrupts frequently.

What Can I Do Now?
When I share this research during my seminars it has quite an impact! Often the men are dismayed to think that they come across as constant interrupters and the women are annoyed with themselves for being so passive. Often both will question the research (I’ll give you some references at the end).

And remember it is generalised and may not apply to you! The point of sharing this is most definitely not to wag a finger or score cheap points but to add to your knowledge of how we communicate. Use this information to enhance your skills and influence.

For example, if you are a woman you might think again about how you contribute in business meetings and how you can make sure that your voice is heard.

If you are a man you might reflect that listening more might give you a better informed view, of colleagues or of what your female customers want.

Some More Reading
If you would like to know more about this topic and the research then I suggest any of Deborah Tannen’s books (she is a Linguistics Professor but very readable) such as ‘Women and Men at Work: Talking from 9 to 5’, and for a more academic approach ‘Women, Men and Language’, by Jennifer Coates.

Author's Bio: 

Jane grew up in a non affluent, primarily working class or blue collar area of the UK where educational achievements were not high on the list of priorities, especially for girls! However, Jane’s childhood love of books and reading (fed by raiding all the jumble sales and thrift shops she could find for material) helped her secure a place at a school which nurtured her talents and eventually led on to University and post graduate study.

Those early experiences of the lottery of opportunity had a profound impact on her and have been reflected in her career. Jane has spent a lifetime working with people of all ages, class, status, income and profession; helping them achieve to their full potential. In the spring of 2003, in her 40s, she decided to make a significant life style change herself and established her own successful company, changingpeople.

Her experience is extensive, covering both the private and public sector, ranging from small business owners to large organisations, professors at Cambridge University to those who may have no formal qualifications who know they want to change their lives but aren’t yet sure how to go about it.
Jane says:

‘ In my career I have worked with literally thousands of people from all walks of life, from those looking to make minor changes in their lives to those in great distress. Very early on I was struck by how some people seemed to survive the most awful of tragedies while others would be floored by something relatively simple.

I found the answer in the 1st century BC and I’d like to share it with you now. Epictetus, a stoic philosopher said,

‘We are not touched so much by life’s events, but by the view we choose to take of them’

Things happen in our lives over which we have no control and lack of control can make us anxious, unhappy, and stifle our inner potential. But there is an area where we always have control! We can always choose how we react and respond to those events and this web site is dedicated to helping you do just that!

I passionately believe that we are all capable of so much more than we think! If we can unleash the potential inside each and every one of us we can be that person we dream of and we can live our lives to the full. What that means will be different for every one of us as we are all unique. It’s not just about wealth or status but about living the life you want and being the best you can possibly be, whatever your starting point. That is my passion.’