In my research on sex differences in listening, I asked more than 1,000 people to identify the strengths and weaknesses of men’s and women’s communication. Women’s top complaint about men was that men are lousy listeners. Men agreed. And they added that sometimes men “don’t even make an effort to pretend they’re listening,” “fail to read nonverbal communications,” and “don’t show emotion.”

Covering pretty much all of these bases is a story from one training session. A woman commented that her husband had the habit of muting her. When she started talking while he was watching one of his favorite TV programs, he would point the remote at her, act like he was pushing a button, and say “Mute!” In Audrey’s study, women also complained that men take things literally and at face value, focus on the words and not the feelings, and try to respond or fix things before hearing the entire issue.

Before you get all smug, ladies, there’s more. Women tend to read too deeply into things and provide too much empathy, according to women’s critique of their own listening skills.

Sometimes women go beyond taking things at face value and overanalyze a statement or movement. Was he tearing up because of something she said, or was there a speck of dirt on his contact lens causing him to shed a tear?

Men tend to be self-oriented in how they apply their listening skills. This does not mean they’re egotistical (and we’re not simply being politically correct here). Men simply tend to be good at representing themselves in what they say, do, and need. When they’re listening to your words, their focus is on how those words impact them.

Women are considered other-oriented; their listening focus is often on how they can help the other person. The end result: men often miss out on valuable nonverbal cues that accompany the message. And women may wrongly assume that men understood there was more to their message than mere words.

What’s keeping you or him from listening? Put away the distractions. We each have our own screens that we tend to use to automatically filter or rearrange data that we’re hearing. We each have a screen door, so to speak.

Think of yourself standing inside the house looking out the front door. The screen is keeping out the bugs. Your view may be slightly blurred due to the screen. Someone is standing on the front stoop talking to you. You’re seeing and hearing this person through your screen door. The messages you’re receiving are as accurate as allowed through that screen.

What is your screen door that keeps some information or bugs out while letting in other information? Just as your assistant may be screening your calls and allowing in only callers or messages that meet your listed criteria, you screen the information that you will allow into your brain. Your screening criteria may be based on your past experiences and what you’ve learned through school, parents, newspapers, magazines, TV, friends, music, sports, or religious affiliations.

Screening factors may include your views on the following:

  • Age ”They’re too young to have any real information.” “They’re too old to get promoted.”
  • Education ”He wouldn’t know; he went to night school.” “Those Ph.D.’s think they know everything.”
  • Weight “He’s too skinny to play football.” “She’s too fat to be sitting at the receptionist desk. What will our clients think?”
  • Gender ”Women don’t belong as brokers on Wall Street.” “Men make terrible nurses.”
  •  Accent ”There’s no point listening when I can’t understand you.” “He’s British; what he said sounds smart, so it must be.”
  • Language ”Why can’t they speak English?”
  • Race ”Asian Americans make great accountants.”
  •  Writing skills ”The engineers may know software, but they can’t write a complete sentence.” “Artists can barely count to 10.”
  • Wealth ”These rich people are totally out of touch with the everyday workers.” “Poor people don’t understand how to budget.”
  • Supervision ”I never listen to anything the boss says.” “He’s one of them.”
  • Employees ”You’ve got to watch over those employees like a hawk; otherwise, nothing gets done.”

These are just some of the screens we use to limit or revise the messages we hear and send. We often screen out what or who we choose to listen to sometimes before the speaker even opens his mouth. If we’re not screening out the whole message, we may be deciding what information we will allow in or how to rearrange the message so it confirms what we already know.

Think about your top three screening factors for your incoming and outgoing messages. How might they impact your ability to listen to others and to respond appropriately?

The Split Ear Phenomena

Audrey describes women’s listening skills as the “split ear phenomena.” Women listen with both ears, each aimed in a different direction. During her years of horseback riding and training, Audrey learned that when faced by an angry young colt, a mare points one ear forward and one ear backward. The ear pointed forward focuses on the misbehaving colt. The ear pointed backward aims at the remaining herd.

This is the same way Audrey describes women’s listening. Each ear may be paying attention to different levels of surrounding activities. On one level, a woman is focused on the words being said, just as a man does when he listens. But on a second level, she’s reading between the lines, interpreting the nonverbal messages in the social and emotional arenas. Women collect more information; they hear more by listening and paying attention to all the information being broadcast across the channels. Men tend to focus solely on the verbal channel or message. When a woman is listening to you, you’re getting two for one. She’s hearing your words and your nonverbal messages (vocal sounds, facial expressions, plus body movement). With men, it’s usually a single-price ticket for words only.

Listening Is a Full Contact Sport

Here’s the problem: women expect men to listen more like, well, women. Women invest a lot of time and energy in listening, showing empathy, and picking up on the nonverbal cues. One male manager described it this way: “It’s like she [his business partner] can read my mind.” It’s not mind reading. Women listen with their eyes and ears. They look more at the person and, therefore, get more information. A woman physically turns to look at and orients her body to face the speaker. She’s using her eyes to get more information through visual cues. Men generally don’t do this. They orient themselves shoulder to shoulder and don’t look at the speaker. Some men never make eye contact with the speaker and miss out on a lot of information in the person’s facial expressions.

Women have learned to listen with their whole body, not just their ears, and to use that information to understand and build relationships.

Men generally have learned to listen to get the facts, be direct, spit it out, not show emotions, make quick judgments, and fix the problem. A man hears what he thinks is enough information and interrupts with a solution. Problem solved. Let’s move along.

A woman wants someone to listen to the issues (preferably a few times), mull them over, and hear her voice as she contemplates the situation. She’s generally not looking for a solution; the emotional processing of talking it through is the solution. She just wants him to listen and hear her concerns and empathize a bit. Then she can move on.

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