Conflict is a natural part of our working lives, whether it’s a disagreement over a business decision, frustration over the handling of a project, or simple irritation at a colleague’s attitude.
Navigating these conflicts is often tricky, but when conflicts occur between men and women, resolving them can pose a unique set of challenges due to the different ways in which men and women tend to approach conflict. Without understanding those differences, men and women can misinterpret each other’s actions and find themselves in conflicts which escalate or fester unresolved.
Gender intelligence experts Barbara Annis and Keith Merron have spent decades helping companies work towards gender balance by advocating the importance of gender intelligence: the ability to recognize, appreciate, and value the differences between men and women. Their work has given them particular insight into the ways in which men and women tend to relate to conflict, and a clear understanding of what men and women need to know to better resolve their differences.
Here, Annis and Merron share those insights, and explain why men often feel that women are keeping score and why women often feel like they’re fighting to be heard.
Let’s start by looking at some of the common frustrations that come up in conflict between the genders.
Barbara: The common frustration for men is that conflicts don’t seem to get resolved, or they don’t seem to get resolved in a timely manner; they seem to linger. And for women, it’s that they don’t feel fully heard and understand; that is the biggest pain for women in conflict resolution.
Keith: Conflict is actually OK with many men. We often like conflict; it’s part of how we feel powerful: it’s like two rams butting heads. But because we conflict partly to feel powerful, the conflict itself doesn’t necessarily have to last; we just have to have this experience of coming together and butting heads a little bit. So, for men, it’s: Let’s have it out and then we’re done with it. And of course if we don’t have it out fully then women are not so done with it.
Barbara: Women are more connected in the memory centers of the brain, and they are also more connected in the emotional part of memory. So, women remember things very, very clearly. For example, let’s say a man comes home late. The woman will connect it to earlier, similar situations which date back years, while men will deal with the situation in an isolated way. So, for them it’s, “I’m late tonight,” it’s not about always being late or never being on time. But women identify the pattern, and so they tend to use words like, “You’re always late.” It’s that generalization that frustrates men. But it is a hard-wiring thing. I use this quote, “Understanding means there’s nothing to forgive.” If we understand that we have different experiences with conflict, and that we relate to it and react to it in a different way, then we can avoid power struggles.
I use this quote, “Understanding means there’s nothing to forgive.” If we understand that we have different experiences with conflict, and that we relate to it and react to it in a different way, then we can avoid power struggles.
That tendency to relate behavior to a pattern can make men feel like women are keeping score.
Barbara: Yes. And to them that feels manipulative, when actually it’s just a natural thing that women tend to do. I always say that for men to connect to earlier memories the way women do, they would literally have to keep a file.
Keith: Women are also more connected to their feeling centers, so when a conflict happens there’s a fair bit of rich feeling tones to it, and often men are not as connected to those feelings. They might be more connected to a simple feeling of anger or frustration, but it’s not richly contoured sets of feelings that intermingle. So, you’ll hear men with each other, say things like, “We good?” and the response will be, “Yep. We’re good.” And if we probe really deeply we might say, “Well, we’re not so good; there’s this going on and that going on.” But when I say, “I’m good,” I’m basically saying that whatever feelings are there, I can put them aside and get on with things. Because women are more connected to their feeling centers, it’s not as easy to just put them aside and get on with things. So when he says, “We good?” the woman says, “No, we’re not good,” and she feels not heard and not regarded.
Barbara: And again, men are quite comfortable dealing with conflict with other men for the most part. They’re quite comfortable duking it out and then saying, “OK, we’re done. Let’s go for a beer.” Women will look at that and say, “Wait, what? You’re going for a beer with that guy?!” So there is a ritual that men are used to that often feels foreign to women, because we do tend to personalize it, and we do tend to ruminate on it. The other thing that’s important to understand, is that in conflict men often need space while women seek understanding. So, if you have a woman who continues to seek understanding from a man who needs space, you can see how those two things can escalate conflict.
In conflict men often need space while women seek understanding. So, if you have a woman who continues to seek understanding from a man who needs space, you can see how those two things can escalate conflict.
A common frustration for women is that when they raise an issue with a male colleague, it can feel like their point is being contested rather than considered. That in turn can feel like someone not acknowledging what they have to say or refusing to take responsibility.
Keith: Men will get wrapped up in, “Is that true or not true?” A woman will raise things and state them in ways that may not separate fact from interpretation, or fact from feeling; it all feels true. What the man is doing is defending what appears to be the facts and in so doing he gets locked in a neck-up conversation. This is caused in two parts. One, is the tendency on the part of the man not to connect to the feeling, and, two, it’s the tendency on the part of the women to express feeling as fact. Together, this creates a condition where they’re not actually getting at the real stuff.
So, what’s he’s defending is not so much what he may have done -- and he may indeed have done it -- it’s the way that it’s being portrayed, which doesn’t feel true to him.
Barbara: There’s an interesting nuance here. At a workshop Keith and I did recently, the men asked the women, “In conflict, if it’s not your fault, why would you say you’re sorry?” The women said, “Well, I say I’m sorry because I’m empathizing.” And the men responded, “But if you say you’re sorry, it’s your fault.” So, often men think that saying they’re sorry puts them in a one down position.
Keith: The other thing that happens is that when a woman doesn’t feel heard, she does indeed often escalate it. So, her initial feeling may be at a 2.0 Richter scale, but then because of the way the man hears what she says he starts to parry or respond to the facts. Well, now she doesn’t feel heard, so now it’s at a 4.0 Richter scale. And then he sees her as being a little bit crazy and kind of over-blowing the situation when it wasn’t that bad, so his response is to minimize it. Well, now she’s at a 5.0 Richter scale, and of course that escalation process is happening in part because of the way he’s responding.
When a woman doesn’t feel heard, she does indeed often escalate it.
Barbara: I would add one more thing, which I see often in women, and I see it in myself as well, which is when a conflict has not been resolved, I will ruminate about it. I will connect it to memories, and then I will attribute it to the person’s character. Men deal with it in isolation: it’s just the situation at hand. But when men do that, I then feel dismissed and not heard because for me it’s much more than that.
And how does this relate to the brain science? Why do men and women have these very different tendencies in conflict?
Barbara: The interior cortex is larger in women and it leads to worrying more, female rumination, and internalizing. It also weighs options. So, it is a tendency that we feel things more. We just do. Now, of course, socialization is a factor here too, not just brain differences.
Keith: Testosterone and estrogen also play a role. Men have greater testosterone but they also have a larger amygdala. Both those elements increase the likelihood that we like to get into battle to some extent, and so those battles feel partly like natural reflections of who we are, and partly it’s that, when we win a battle, we feel better and stronger and more competent. And competence matters especially for men.
With estrogen there’s this feeling of wanting to be connected, and interestingly when women are connected and networked with other people, their sense of self goes up, their sense of, “This feels right, this feels good. I feel at home.” So, if we accentuate this a little bit, women feel at home through connection and men feel at home through conflict.
Women feel at home through connection and men feel at home through conflict.
Barbara: UCLA did a beautiful study around conflict and stress and gender differences. They found that the old psychology where we thought that both male and female brains did fight or flight in conflict and stress was actually incorrect. It’s actually the male brain which tends to do fight or flight. Women have a greater propensity to tend and befriend.
The powerful thing about the gender differences, is that when you have conflict, it’s really smart to have both genders and to be gender intelligent. Women have a more developed prefrontal cortex, which is the consequential thinking of the brain that also manages the amygdala, the fight or flight part that triggers aggression and action.
We saw this many years ago when we did workshops with the LAPD. They found that having both men and women in a conflict situation, whether it was a family dispute or whatever was going on, actually deescalated the conflict.
Can we talk about paranoia in the workplace: how men can feel they have to over-edit what they say to women, and how that can set the stage for conflicts not being properly resolved and therefore escalating.
Barbara: One of the things that we see often, in particular if there has been compliance training, diversity or harassment training, is this political correctness. And even if there hasn’t been that, men do tend to be much more conflict averse when it comes to women. One reason is that they are concerned about being misinterpreted, another is that they’re confused about how women tend to react to or relate to conflict. They’ve never been trained in this, and they’re never thought about the fact that the way you resolve conflict with men and with women needs to be different. So, we really focus on coaching men to increase their comfort zone on this, and giving them tools to help them be more empowered in resolving conflict and providing sensitive feedback.
The way you resolve conflict with men and with women needs to be different.
Keith: I don’t know if it’s paranoia, but certainly there is a high degree of hesitation on the part of men to confront a woman or to talk about a conflict. Men know that women will ruminate or hold a grudge, or feel more. And often men don’t know how to navigate that terrain well, especially if they’ve been in an environment which is predominantly male, because then they don’t have to navigate that terrain a whole lot, so they don’t get good at it. It’s not that hard in my experience, but it does require the ability to see what’s going on on the other side and not to see behavior as crazy but just to see it as perfectly normal and natural.
Men know that women will ruminate or hold a grudge, or feel more. And often men don’t know how to navigate that terrain well, especially if they’ve been in an environment which is predominantly male.
Empathy is a new buzz word, but it’s something you've both been championing in the workplace for a long time. In conflict, in particular, men and women need to be able to understand how the other comes at it in order to resolve it.
Barbara: This is a crucial point. Empathy and collaboration is the future of leadership, and that is very powerfully the female brain. That doesn’t mean that men can’t learn it by the way, but it’s just a natural thing like breathing for women. I was just in Europe, and I was talking to a gentleman who had been through gender intelligence training, and he said to me, “I have more women on my team now, and I have to tell you it is so much better.” And I asked him how it was better, and he said, “I’m listening to them in a whole different way than I did before the workshop.” And then he said, “The collaboration and the empathy feels really good, and I would not say that feeling good was something that I saw as part of my work -- I got that in my personal life; work was just duking it out. But it feels so much better. We’re more collaborative, we produce better results, and we actually like each other!” We hear examples like that all the time. When you have gender balance and gender intelligence, you bring empathy, and bringing empathy into conflict is pretty smart thinking.
Keith: It’s huge. I’ll add to this personally. Empathy is not so easy for me initially. I have to think about what the other person must be feeling. And then from that question, I’m able to anticipate that if I were to do something a certain way then this might happen. Then I adjust my behavior accordingly. But that’s the thought process that I have to go through, because it doesn’t come naturally. I work well when people are direct with me about what works or what doesn’t work.
Barbara: And I think that’s really important, because when women seek understanding it can often land as a complaint -- it sounds like complaining. I always say, flip it around. So, behind every complaint there’s an unspoken request. So then, what is the unspoken request that you need to speak about? State your request instead of stating how you feel and seeking understanding. So, for example, if he comes home late, don’t tackle the conflict by saying, “You’re late again. You were late last week, and two weeks ago. You were late on our first date!” -- and all of those connections to the memory centers of the brain that we as women can very easily make. If my husband comes home late, I’ll either negotiate a different expectation or I’ll make a request: My request is that you be here at this time. Then it’s done, and you don’t need to make any more memory connections.
Let’s address why it's so important for companies to help employees get better at navigating and resolving conflict.
Barbara: As a leader, people manager, or individual contributor, mastering the ability to resolve conflict in an empowering and gender intelligent manner, will make you stand out. And why? Several reasons. It impacts productivity. It impacts morale. But it’s also the company’s reputation; we see this in research all the time. On average, men share a negative experience with up to three people, women share it with up to 32 people, so there’s that too.
Keith: When I first started my career, I trained as a mediator to mediate and facilitate conflict, and I think it was one of the best things I ever did, because I’ve been using that skill ever since. To me, in conflict is everything. All the dynamics, all the issues, all the differences, all the inabilities or abilities, it all shows up in conflict. Our maturity, or lack thereof, shows up in conflict. Our ability to deal with differences shows up in conflict. It’s all there. There’s a phrase that I have been using a lot lately when people are in conflict, which is I don’t invite them to work it through, I invite them to learn it through. I love that little phrase, because in the conflict there is so much for us to learn about ourselves and each other. Let’s enter it in a learning stance with curiosity and a desire to see ourselves and the other more fully. So, the possibility in conflict is huge.
Barbara: You really, truly see people’s leadership maturity in how they react to, relate to, and learn through conflict. And let’s take this at a global level: just imagine if we were gender intelligent in how we resolved conflict in this world of ours. Imagine if we had both men and women at the table in dealing with conflict in a gender intelligent way. Imagine the impact that could have.
This interview has been edited.
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