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Gender Collisions in Conversation

The conversation styles of men and women differ a lot, and not just because of cultural shaping. Significant differences in biology also cause how men and women respond to stress and how they get their emotional needs met.

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

During 25 years of practicing marriage counseling, I found that the single biggest problem was communication - how the spouses talked to each other, or didn't talk. The problem was bigger than money, sex, in-laws, or child-raising.

Almost 30 years ago, psychiatrist Dr. Pierre Mornell wrote his classic little book, Passive Men, Wild Women in which he described husbands as avoiding and wives grasping for conversation. In 1992, John Gray published the first in a series of relationship books, Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus that describes the different communication styles of men and women and how to adjust to them.

Dr. Gray's latest book (2008) further illuminates the issues of why men and women clash during conversation. In Why Mars and Venus Collide he goes deeper and examines the "emotional biology" of the two genders and how man and women cope differently with stress in their lives.

For the first time in six years of writing articles about conversation, I am going to focus on a single book and give you a précis of its ideas. This will not be a book review but, instead, a kind of summary of Gray's well-researched and clearly stated ideas.

No one reading this article is surprised to find that people in foreign countries speak different languages and have different styles of communicating. For example, Finns speak Finnish and tend to be somewhat taciturn and private. Italians speak Italian and tend often to be emotionally expressive. Astute travelers do their best to make adjustments in order to communicate in local languages and styles.

However, men and women in our society too often overlook -- or simply don't understand -- the differences between them. Women often don't understand why most men do not enjoy shopping, and men don't understand why many women like to watch soap operas on TV.

Instead, each gender sees things - and one another - from its own perspective. As author Anais Nin wrote cryptically, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Some key ideas from Why Mars and Venus Collide

1. "Women want men to become like women"

As it happens, women find their stress levels go down when they are able to talk in detail about themselves, their work, their problems. Women are good at doing this kind of talk, and most men are not.

In fact, men often seek to avoid that kind of talk because they prefer solving problems instead of describing them. So a woman may try to change her man.

Big mistake! As entertainer Mae West used to say, "Don't marry a man to reform him. That's what reform schools are for."

Gray goes on to say that "Instead of seeing our different stress reactions as a problem, we need to recognize that our attempts to change our partners are most often the real problem."

2. "The problem is never just our partner, but our own inability to cope with stress"

If a woman expects her man to be the only - or the main - support to reduce the inevitable high stress levels in her busy life, she will be first disappointed, then resentful, and finally very angry. As Gray explains in detail, "A man can only provide 10 percent of a woman's fulfillment. The rest is up to her."

Knowing this, women will seek (and men will support) her doing those things that make her feel good - including shopping with her friends. And women will understand and support a man's need to disconnect and be by himself while he re-charges his biological batteries.

3. "While women tend to reach out to take in more information,under stress men tend to focus on determining the most important thing to do."

Women are drawn to "Let's talk it over" and men want to fix the problem as fast as possible. These tendencies seem to be hard-wired into the two sexes. They are biologically based.

When men are able to handle a problem quickly and well, their testosterone levels go up and they feel better. Similarly, when women are able to talk over the specifics of their issues and feel connected and supported and understood, their oxytocin levels rise, and they feel whole again.

4. "Oxytocin (the female stress-reducing hormone) decreases when a woman feels alone, ignored, unsupported, or that she does not matter."

When a man begins to take his woman for granted, when he does not notice and compliment the "little things" like a change of hair style or new garment, she feels it deeply.

To adjust, a man needs to pay attention and express his appreciation and support. To say "But you know I love you" is not nearly enough. He needs to demonstrate his affection on a regular basis.

5. "After a few years of listening to the same things, a man doesn't even listen or bother to help."

"He never listens to me!" was the complaint I often heard from disgruntled married women.

Their obvious but unrealistic solution was to shape up the man, to train him, even force him, to listen more and better. But that would be as difficult as expecting the woman to be fascinated by the nuances of a professional football game or the performance of an automobile engine.

Sure: A man can learn to listen better, to pay attention and understand. But not endlessly, and not to the same issues and details. Instead of relying exclusively on her man for this support, the woman can - and should - turn also to her women friends and to other satisfying activities. If she does not, she will be stuck, stressed out and blameful.


In my estimation, most men and women lack an understanding of how their stress levels can best be lowered, and how their ways of relating and talking form a critical part of how they manage stress. To deepen that understanding, I recommend this book, Why Mars and Venus Collide.

If readers apply its insights, they'll spare themselves a good deal of relationship pain and many dollarsthey'd otherwise have to spend in counseling or even divorce proceedings.

Loren Ekroth © 2008, All rights reserved

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact Loren at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of valuable resources and articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com and subscribe to his weekly free Better Conversations ezine (which also entitles you to two very informative reports).

Some Related Articles:

How Do You Talk to a Man?
Understanding the Other Half of the Population
Four Steps to Direct Communication
Speaking Your Truth to Your Partner
Say, What's On Your Mind, Partner?

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