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Thursday, 15 October 2015 20:42

Overcoming the Impact of Gender Bias on Our Communication Styles

Alexandra Petri, the author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, wrote a funny opinion piece in the Washington Post this week entitled “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting.”  The piece uses humor to make the point that our communication styles demonstrate just how real and pervasive gender bias is in our culture.  Here are Ms. Petri’s translation of famous quotes from men.

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”

“I have a dream today!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?” ...

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I have to say — I’m sorry — I have to say this. I don’t think we should be as scared of non-fear things as maybe we are? If that makes sense? Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling.”

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m not an expert, Dave, but I feel like maybe you could accomplish more by maybe shifting your focus from asking things from the government and instead looking at things that we can all do ourselves? Just a thought. Just a thought. Take it for what it’s worth.”

“Let my people go.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Pharaoh, listen, I totally hear where you’re coming from on this. I totally do. And I don’t want to butt in if you’ve come to a decision here, but, just, I have to say, would you consider that an argument for maybe releasing these people could conceivably have merit? Or is that already off the table?”

“I came. I saw. I conquered.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I don’t want to toot my own horn here at all but I definitely have been to those places and was just honored to be a part of it as our team did such a wonderful job of conquering them.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, it really feels to me like we’re all equal, you know? I just feel really strongly on this.”

“I have not yet begun to fight.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, I’m not going to fight you on this.”

“I will be heard.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Sorry to interrupt. No, go on, Dave. Finish what you had to say.”

Acknowledging all the failings normally attributed to generalizations, for simplicity sake we still can recognize that often the way men speak is very different from the way women speak.  But this difference is not due to taste or nature or randomness; it is due to the power relationships between men and women that have shaped our culture and society for centuries. 

Men speak their challenges, demands, requests and beliefs directly with a freedom that only comes from being entitled to do so by the norms of our culture, and these cultural norms are ultimately the expression of where the power has been concentrated in our society.  Often the confidence men experience in this culture of male entitlement drifts from being simply direct into being somewhat dishonest.  That is, because we feel so free to be direct we have less experience feeling ourselves accountable to the facts.  When people don’t challenge our assertions very much, our assertions begin to serve our self-interests rather than the truth.

Women, by contrast, find themselves having to be circuitous, self-diminishing, diplomatic and very gentle in asserting any perspective they may have.  This is not because women are inherently less self-confident, tentative or any more uncertain about what they experience than are men.  It is because, in one way or another, the men of society have kept the women of society under their thumbs for centuries.  This summary reference to the toll of centuries of political, legal, economic, domestic, and cultural oppression may push buttons for many men, but we should not be so quick to dismiss the thesis.

Ms. Petri’s piece describes the strategies adopted by people trying to participate in a society that oppresses them.  Although it is intended to make us laugh, the point is that the oppression of women even in our modern world is very real and is even present in board rooms and middle management meetings where women often speak as second class citizens and where men often react to women in ways that demonstrate a lack of awareness and a sense of entitlement in handing down verbal abuse that can be as brutal in its dehumanizing spirit as it is unjust and wrong.

Even if we acknowledge the existence of this oppression in the world of business, however, it is harder to look into our own families and recognize and admit that, as a man, I speak with an unconscious, even innocent, if also unjust and inadvertently harmful, entitlement, an entitlement that my wife will never know. 

And my wife, lives in a world where she frequently encounters strong reactions from men, including me, who have grown up used to the advantage men enjoy living in a culture that accords women a second class right to a human being’s unique perspective.

I think it should be obvious that it is beneficial to the strength of any relationship or marriage when both men and women develop the ability to acknowledge and respond to the impact of this gender bias on the different communication styles of men and women.  But as it turns out, developing this ability is also hugely important to the best interests of divorcing couples. 

As a mediator who works with divorcing couples every day, I see the generalized difference in communication styles frequently in the way husbands and wives discuss their views of fairness and negotiate the terms of their divorce settlement.  Often, the stated intention, which is deeply felt by both parties, is to be fair to and supportive of each other.  Although they are divorcing, both parties want a constructive path to honoring what they have shared, preserving a certain level of friendship and good regard for each other in the future, and serving the best interests of the children who suffer when their parents are in frequent conflict.  Yet, despite this genuine, praiseworthy intention, a good number of these couples find themselves in conflicts where styles of communication make reaching a durable, mutually beneficial, optimized agreement challenging to reach. 

The mold in which many women have learned to communicate does not serve them well in testing their own true feelings and standing up for their perspective in a contest with men.  The mold in which many men have learned to communicate does not serve them well in staying true to their intention to collaborate with and be supportive of the needs of women because too often it drives every subject into a contest of force. 

Men have learned to assert their perspective with the force of reason, or sometimes just with force plain and simple.  We grow up learning to judge the merit of a perspective based on the force of its logic.  And we have also learned in many ways to prefer women who behave without asserting their own force. 

When we remain unconscious of the impact of the mold we have learned as men to use in the way we communicate, we defeat our own longing to be valued and desired as partners and friends of women.  When we are unconscious of this impact during the course of divorce negotiations, we further defeat our longing to be valued and desired by women as co-parents of our children and to optimize the conditions that promote the well-being of our children.

Interestingly, as a mediator, the strong reactions men sometimes have against women who assert themselves are sometimes directed at me when I try to reframe what the woman has said in a passive and tentative way into something that more directly expresses the need or value the woman is trying to assert.  Occasionally, when I am doing this reframing, I will be accused of losing the neutrality I am responsible to maintain as mediator.  It does not feel fair to the husband that I should read between the lines and test my hypothesis that something stronger is felt than is actually being expressed.  If the wife wants to assert herself more strongly, then she will do it, but the mediator should not be coaching her to do so.  Or so the husband feels.

My response to this complaint is to take note of the stylistic differences in the participant’s communication styles, illustrated by specific examples from our mediation sessions, and to underscore the negative impact on the durability of the agreement we reach and the health of their subsequent co-parenting relationship if, due to the stylistic differences noted, one party agrees to terms feeling like her true feelings have never been understood, accorded due consideration, or fairly accounted for in the agreement reached. 

The challenge at this moment is for the party with the complaint about my neutrality to evaluate whether the impact of gender bias on the participants’ different communication styles is real and deserving of the mediator’s intervention.  If it is often necessary for the mediator to choose different words to make what one party has said less inflammatory in restating his or her position, is it also necessary at times for the mediator to find different words to make what one party has said more direct and accurate in its assertions, even if this means that the mediator makes the other party’s assertion stronger in the process?

I submit that Ms. Petri’s opinion piece offering examples of how women in a meeting would say famous quotations is strong cultural evidence that pervasive gender bias is real and that it has a huge negative impact on the way we communicate that goes beyond the business sphere.  I submit that, whether in mediation or in our daily exchanges, we do need to learn how to mediate the shortcomings in communications styles of both genders by striving to more accurately represent the true thoughts of each person. 

For men, this means not allowing our unconscious sense of entitlement to thoughtlessly assert our self-interest in disguise as our actual perspective on the facts that determine what’s fair.  And for women, this means by finding a way to assert our own needs and sense of fairness without consideration for what others think.  In fact, men and women can help each other in achieving a healthier style of communication by acknowledging the real impact gender bias has on our communication styles and allowing each other to give us feedback about the way we communicate and to make room for others to model and make guesses about what we really would say if we could overcome the impact of gender bias on the way we communicate. 

Offering such modeling and guesses is an important tool I rely upon as a mediator to help divorcing couples navigate an extremely difficult transition in thier lives, and I find that, in the end, my clients are grateful for the effort I invest in not allowing the impact of gender bias on our communication styles to degrade the quality of the mediation process or obstruct the participants from achieving their goals.

When I shared Ms. Petri’s article on facebook, my friend Deanne commented: Nailed it...thanks! I was just accused of having my "panties in a bunch" at work and I wasn't even upset at all at the situation. Sometimes it makes me question what I am doing wrong with my delivery (and my sanity). Then I remember that in construction this will happen no matter how I say something.  The impact of pervasive gender bias on our communication styles is real and it is harmful and it is not wrong to describe that impact as a form of oppression. Fortunately, it is a form of oppression that can be easily overcome through careful application of our constructive communication skills.