I came across an interesting article on LifeScience.com, by Jeanna Brynner, Clueless Guys Can’t Read Women. That headline is practically shouting for men to respond, so here is my response.
Women: Get a clue! You are probably finding it just as hard to read men correctly! Oh, and guys, you get a clue too!
Yes, I know, I hear it all the time, man has an on-off switch, woman has a control panel loaded with bells and whistles. But I am saying that it just ain’t necessarily so. I find that intelligence and stupidity are equally divided across gender lines. So is open mindedness and narrow mindedness. And, as a man, and a friend of other men, I know for a fact that men are as complex in their needs, desires and non-verbal signals as women.
Maybe the real gender distinction is that we men have agreed to the boiled-down version of our narrative (we are just trying to mate and fulfill our genetic mandate to populate the planet). Women prefer the complex version laden with its subtleties (women carry the future of humanity in their DNA, and must pay attention closely to the signals of life in order to protect it).
But either case could be made either way, and like beauty, I am thinking this is all in the mind of the beholder.
A Quick Look Back
In my work doing public training programs back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to notice that more women signed up for voluntary training in these venues than men. Sometimes the gender of the audience was skewed 70% female, 30% male. Sometimes, even more, depending on the topic. I remember the relationship seminar I delivered for CareerTrack back in 1989, “How To Find And Keep A Mate.”
Typically, the audience consisted of 2-300 women, most of them gorgeous and dressed to the nines, along with three or four of the nerdiest men on the planet. Some time in the first 20 minutes of the program, some woman in the audience would raise her hand and ask, neigh, demand to know, “Why aren’t there more men here!??” And I, being the clueless male that I sometimes am, replied with a flip answer because I had no better one. “They’re trying to get here. It is just that none of them are willing to stop and ask for directions. They’re probably circling the neighborhood even as I speak!” Everyone would laugh (yes, the women laughed and the 3 guys laughed too.)
So I asked other people in my industry what they thought was going on. The explanation most often given was that women are more open minded, more eager to learn, and more capable of change; and the corollary, that men are more narrow minded, resistant to learning, and inflexible when it comes to change.
But when I dug deeper, I find that the truth of it had more to do with the times themselves.
- A man’s place in business was more assured (at that time), so there was less motivation to attend a training program. His work was advancement.
- A woman’s place in business (at that time) was uncertain, as a whole plethora of opportunities were opening up. Women were moving into new careers, new professions and new fields of endeavor at an unprecedented pace, boldly going where no (wo)man had gone before, and were much more motivated to acquire the skills necessary to make those moves and take on those challenges.
And there were more women looking for relationships, too. In part, I suspect, because the sudden freedom to choose the kind of life they wanted had led many to divorce unfaithful, inattentive and unappreciative husbands to try again. Many of them felt burned and distrustful, but were still in the mode of finding out what they really wanted, and open to exploring their options. The men, now abandoned and left behind, also felt burned and distrustful, and being clueless about women wanted, decided to wait until they found out.
Improve Communication with Everyone
These days, the numbers seem to have evened up substantially in my audiences. Nobody has job security anymore, and men as well as women are trying to learn what they can to keep their options open. And as younger people have entered the workforce, they seem to have brought less bias with them regarding the abilities of men and women at work, and they come to training programs in fairly equal numbers. That’s not to say that they are unbiased in their perceptions of each other. But then, some of our biases and stereotypes have been built over generations, and will likely take generations to change.
I think the most useful idea on how to improve communication between the genders is to improve communication, period. The more men learn about how to communicate with people, the greater the likelihood of their success in building relationships with women. And the more women learn about how to communicate effectively with people, the greater the likelihood of their success in building relationships with men.
Whether man or woman, the same skills apply.
- Start with useful assumptions.
- Build trust.
- Resolve conflict creatively.
- Use persuasion to win hearts, hands and minds.
That’s how women and men can get a clue. They may not be any better at reading each other, but they will certainly be more aware that there is something worth reading, and have a shot at getting to it sooner.
Here are four steps to improve communication.
1. Start with useful assumptions.
There are two kinds of assumptions you can make. Limiting and useful ones.
- Limiting assumptions are the ones that hold you back, tie you up, and trap you into self defeating and counterproductive behavior. Limiting assumptions are the ones you get to be right about, but there is no advantage gained.
- A useful assumption is something that gives you enough informed perspective that when you base your behavior on it, it takes you somewhere you want to go. You have to assume something. Whatever you assume, you will get to be right about it. So why not assume something useful instead of limiting?
2. Build trust.
Communication happens in a framework of trust. And trust is rarely given. More often, it has to be earned. We earn trust by meeting people where they are, taking an interest in what they mean by what they say, seeking to understand where they are coming from and where they are going, and speaking authentically along the way.
3. Resolve conflict creatively.
The basic rule of relationships whenever the potential for conflict or disagreement exists is that ‘Nobody cooperates with anybody who seems to be against them.’ In human relationships, it turns out that you’re either ‘with me or against me.’ It’s a binary mandate that happens at an emotional unconscious level, and for the emotional/unconsciously driven person, it must be obeyed. But you don’t have to respond in a binary manner, on or off, yes or no. Creative conflict is about exploring and creating options. The more options you can generate, the more likely you are to find one that’s satisfying to all parties concerned.
4. Use persuasion to win hearts, hands and minds.
Persuasion is the deliberate attempt to influence the attitude of others to bring about a desired result. It requires some insight into human thought, feeling and behavior. To be persuasive, you must understand the motivations, needs and beliefs of another person, and then speak to those needs and engage those motivations without threatening those beliefs. In this way, you enter into a zone of acceptance, where the walls come down and the information flows from low quality to high quality.
That’s how women and men can get a clue. Both in the office and in relationships. They may not be any better at reading each other, but they’ll certainly be more aware that there’s something worth reading, and have a shot at getting to it sooner.
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