How Gender Differences Make Decision-Making Difficulties

Does seeing male-female differences reflect bias, stereotyping, or reality?

Posted Feb 02, 2012

(c) photography33
Source: (c) photography33

Couples need to be able to make decisions together. So do work colleagues.  Why does trouble come running as soon as two people, and especially folks of different genders, try to solve problems together?  Male plus female plus a decision to be made invites high potential for arguments.

That's often because each gender tends to short-change a different vital decision-making step.  Men rush for the finish line.  Women explore, communicating about various underlying concerns.  And therein lies the struggle.

This observation goes beyond simple stereotyping in that it has been well-verified in copious research. Deborah Tannen first catalogued the research basis in her book You Just Don't Understand.  Later, in her book about male-female differences in the business world, Talking from 9 to 5, she repeated her research conclusions, "that often women want to talk about problems and get annoyed with men who want to solve them."  By contrast, Tannen surmises, "men ... tend to take complaints as requests for solutions."

When it comes to shared decision-making, men tend to rush too quickly to the finish line. Women tend to dwell too long on exploring all the various aspects of the problem, moving too slowly toward a plan of action. Each is at risk for impatience with the other.

See my post on men and women's listening patterns, Just Listen To Me!, for a humorous take on these differences.

Here's an example. 

While the example below is from the home sphere, the same principles apply to duo problem-solving in the workplace

Joe and Alyssa wanted to plan their summer vacation, they unknowingly were setting themselves up for trouble.  That was because Joe is male, and Alyssa female.

"When do you want to talk?"  Alyssa asked Joe.  

"Let's talk right now," Joe said with enthusiasm.  

Alyssa responded, "No...it's too complicated now while the kids are here with us downstairs.  I'd rather wait until they're up in their rooms doing homework." 

"Why did you ask me if you're not going to do what I suggest?" Joe said, clearly piqued.  

Here's the scoop

When women face a decision, they tend to begin by collecting data.  They do this by asking for others' thoughts on a question.  When men hear these questions, they think they are being asked for a plan of action.  

If the woman then thinks further about other factors and then decides against the man's suggested plan, woops.  The man feels that his idea was rejected, and therefore that he was rejected. Trouble's brewing.

As I mentioned above, this glitch happens because when men address a problem, they tend to head straight for the finish line.  They view success as finding a solution, preferably asap. When women address a problem they tend to err on the side of excessive data collection.  They first explore the territory before being ready to choose an answer.  And therein lay the struggles of Joe and Alyssa.

Back to the Dialogue

Later that evening, Joe began the conversation. "Well this summer's planning will be easy.  I'd love to plan a fishing trip with the boys."

Alyssa responded affectionately, "Yes, I know you love fishing and it's been a long time since we've done any.  I'm thinking though that I'd love for all of us to have time with my folks.  With them living in New England and us in Colorado, we hardly ever get to see them.The boys already in their teens. They'll be off to college in no time and will hardly have spent time with their grandparents at all."

"Great!" Joe exclaimed. "Let's go fishing for a week, or even two, off the coast of Maine. That's a perfect plan.  Fishing for me and the boys; grandparent visits for you. What's for dinner?" 

Alyssa groaned. 

"Why can't we communicate?  This marriage is so frustrating!" she thought to herself, feeling irritated at Joe.

From Joe's point of view, they'd solved the problem.  He was being affable.  He had found a great win-win solution.  Why was Alyssa upset with him? 

"What just happened?" Joe asked, dismayed by his wife's reaction.

"I do appreciate your asking," Alyssa responded sincerely. "I want to talk and you're already done with the conversation!" she explained. "In fact, there's lots more I'd like to discuss with you about the summer."

"Like what?" Joe queried in surprise.  He'd felt quite satisfied with the summer plan he'd suggested.

Here's the scoop

For women, a quickee dash to solutions is frustrating.  The sexual equivalent for a couple is no foreplay followed by premature ejaculation.  She's just getting started and he's already done.

Alyssa then led an important sharing.  It turned out that she had on her mind multiple underlying concerns that she had not yet expressed. 

In terms of the three steps in win-win waltz conflict resolution, Joe had jumped from the first step, offering an initial solution idea, to step three, deciding on a plan of action.  He'd skipped the middle step, step two, which is exploration of underlying concerns. His resulting solution proposal was based on just part of the full set of factors that turned out to be important.

Meanwhile back in the kitchen...

Over the next half hour or so Joe and Alyssa talked effectively about multiple additional issues. Both of them had learned top notch talking and listening skills .  No problems there.  They kept the emotional tone calm, respectful, and often even playful.  No problems there.

As a result they were able to discuss their financial realities, which were tighter than Joe had realized as his wife mostly manages their accounts.  They discussed Joe's medical situation, with allergies that tend to get dangerously bad during the summer.  They discussed the boys' summer hopes, which included playing on local softball teams and also summer jobs to earn money toward college.  They discussed Alyssa's parents' situation.  Parkinson's was causing her dad to age quickly, leaving few remaining years that he would be able to travel. 

Joe gradually began to squirm.  "OK, OK, all this talking has been a good idea.  At the same time, we've done a ton of talking and yet we still have no plan!"

Alyssa grinned. "You're right!  Maybe it would be a good idea, now that we understand more of the concerns that our plan will need to address, to start brainstorming about possible solutions.  What kind of vacation might work for all of us?"

Here's the deal

Men love to generate solutions.  Women enjoy sharing the exploration of relevant concerns.  The good news though  is that men can explore underlying concerns, and women can create solutions.  It's just that each tends to be more comfortable, and to do more of, one or the other realm.  

Put men's and women's strengths together and, wow, great solutions can emerge.  That way they can co-create plans of action responsive to all the concerns of both of them and to the concerns of others who'll be involved in the plan as well.

Back to the dialogue

"I've changed my mind," Joe said, "about what I think might be a good plan. Here's a new idea, a solution set.  By that I mean a plan with pieces that should cover all the bases. 

"I would love some day to take that fishing excursion on a boat in Maine.  At the same time, especially given all these pieces of the puzzle that you and I have been talking about, now probably is not a great time.  So instead let's schedule weekends fishing trips here in Colorado.  It's been forever since I've been to Colorado mountain streams for fly-fishing, which I love, and which I've always wanted to teach the boys to do.  We could schedule around the boys baseball team's events.  And let's ask the boys to find jobs where they will have weekends off.  . 

"By going Colorado fly-fishing instead of taking a boat trip off the Maine coast, we still could have a batch of time with your parents.  Actually we maybe could have even more time than if we flew to Maine.  Now that they're retired, we could invite them to come out and stay with us for a month.  That would be a whole lot cheaper way to enjoy time with them than flying us plus the three boys to Maine.  Your folks would enjoy traveling here in the Wild West while your dad's legs and balance are still OK enough for him to be able to walk in the mountains.  During the weekdays when we have to work, they could drive to beautiful places with manageable length hikes."

"I love that idea," Alyssa said.  "I do worry about our finances.  With this new plan, besides the air fare savings the fishing would be inexpensive because we could rent tents and camp out.  It's still early enough in the year that we should be able to reserve choice camping sites.  And if we broke the fishing up into two or three long-weekend trip, I'd hardly have to miss work, which is what gets really expensive given that at my new job I get paid by the hour instead of on a yearly salary."

"Are there any little pieces of this that still feel unfinished?" Joe asked. 

Note this key skill

That vital last question can identify key remaining concerns that may need to be addressed.  "Are there any little pieces of this that still feel unfinished?"

Back to talking

"I hate to admit it," Joe added, answering  his own question, "but staying in Colorado keeps me closer to my allergy doctors.  That last asthma attack, the one last summer, was pretty terrifying."

Alyssa thought.  "I agree!  As for me, what's unfinished still is that I want to thank you for agreeing to take time to talk through all the different aspects of the decision before we made a definite plan."

Joe smiled.  "And I want to thank you for agreeing to move on to actually formulating a plan of action.  I can talk just so long about concerns.  I feel hugely relieved when we actually figure out what we are going to do... Oh and one more thing.  Since I won't have to take a full week or two off from work this summer, how about if we also plan to use my vacation time next winter for a getaway for the two of us?"

Hugs.  Smiles.  Success.

(c)Susan Heitler, PhD

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(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Susan Heitler PhD, is a Denver clinical psychologist. She has authored multiple publications plus a website for couples who want to learn to handle their differences collaboratively rather than by arguing.

Dr. Heitler's most recent book and website, Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, also includes a section on the skills for solving problems cooperatively.