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How women and men communicate differently

POSTED: July 23, 2014 5:00 a.m.
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Men and Women communicate differently.

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Question:
My wife and I really struggle with communication. We are so different in our communication styles and sometimes we just don't get each other. We've tried reading books and doing what they suggest, like reflective listening, but it still isn't working very well. Do you have some other suggestions to help us work through things better?

Answer:
Communication is a critical part of a good relationship, and it sounds like you've been working on it, which is the first step in the right direction. It might also help to know some of the differences in how men and women communicate and how to use what Dr. John Lund, therapist and author, calls "content communication," which helps eliminate misunderstandings.

As you have probably noticed, women typically want to talk more than men, and that's why you may sometimes feel like you've reached your limit long before your wife is done. This is normal, and your wife should not feel like it's because you don't care or you're not interested. She needs to understand it's a guy thing.

Lund says that communication signals involve much more than just words. We communicate with our body language, facial expression and tone of voice too. Men, on average, use 7,000 communication signals per day and women use 21,000 (see Pease, Alan and Barbara, "Why Men Don't Listen and Why Women Can't Read Maps," New York: Broadway Books, 2001). So it's no wonder that men hit their limit long before women do. By the time you're done, she's just getting started.

Another way that men and women communicate differently is that efficiency of words is very important for men, but not so much for women. Lund has found that men tend to become impatient with inefficiency from other people, and then they start to finish sentences for others and interrupt. This is something you can be aware of when talking to you wife. It's also true that women interrupt, but for a different reason. They usually interrupt to add more detail which, by the way, men perceive as unnecessary.
Does your wife ever feel like she has to pry information out of you? This could be because of your need for efficiency and her need for more detail. Also notice that when you talk, it's probably mostly about giving information and your wife will probably talk more about feelings and emotions as a way to process them. Neither is right or wrong, it's just something you both need to be aware of when trying to connect with each other.

One last difference is something Lund calls personalization. You may have heard it said that men are good at compartmentalizing — taking all of the experiences throughout the day, putting each of them into separate compartments and not letting them mix together. Most women are not good at this.

Personalization is when women make connections with all the information they process, and then they integrate this information and internalize it. Here's an example. Let's say you're having dinner with some friends (at their house) and you say to your wife, "Wow, this pie is really good, don't you think?" Because your wife personalizes, she's thinking, "He wants me to make pie like this." She has gone through an entire process of connecting your statement with a lot of her own thoughts and then applying it all to herself.

If she had said the same thing to you, you probably would have thought, "Yep, good pie." This is also why you and your wife could have a small argument in the morning and you're OK with being intimate that night but she isn't. You have compartmentalized (it's two completely different situations) and she has internalized (the two situations get mixed together and affect each other). This tendency towards personalization sometimes means women see things that aren't really there.

This is something we have to work on. We have to learn to step back and make sure what we are thinking is accurate.

Now, think about a time when your wife asked you to go somewhere with her and your response was, "Yah sure" but your tone of voice was not very excited. Your wife is getting a mixed message because your communication signals (words and tone of voice) don't match up. So which one does she believe? We pay more attention to facial expressions and body language (55 percent) than to tone of voice (37 percent) or the actual words (8 percent) (see Smith, Dennis and Williamson, L. Keith, "Interpersonal Communication," Dubuque, Iowa: W.C. Brown Co., 1981). Your wife would probably assume that you didn't want to go because she believes your tone of voice more than your words. But it's still a guessing game, and we get it wrong a lot.

This is where what Lund calls "content communication" comes in handy. It's really quite a simple idea. All you have to do is completely ignore all communication signals except for the actual words. This means that no matter how much your body language and tone of voice conflict with your words, we only believe your words.

You and your wife would have to agree ahead of time to communicate this way. Lund, in his book "For All Eternity," says, "As content communicators, you must own your words and your feelings. Remember, you are under obligation to say what you mean and to be held accountable for your words."

Through several studies he has done, he found that if we pay attention to all of the communication signals, we misunderstand each other at least 20 percent of the time. But if we use content communication, we misunderstand only three out of every 200 communications. One of my clients has tried this with her husband, and he loves it. He will ask if she wants to go to a movie and reminds her to use content communication — then he trusts that he's getting an honest answer.

Changing the way you communicate is difficult because it's hard to override your subconscious habits and hold back your responses to body language and tone of voice. It is going to take some practice to get there, but I think this is a great place to start. Also make sure to download the validating conversations worksheet from our website. Couples who know how to have validating conversations can work through almost anything.

You can do this.

Contributing: Lisa Stirland and John Lund.

Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of www.claritypointcoaching.com. Lisa Stirland is also a Claritypoint coach. You can get more information about John Lund and his communication tips at www.drlund.com.

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