You're All Talk
Communication breakdown occurs most often between the sexes. Improve workplace practices by getting this right.
"Often it is not what you say, but how you say it that counts. The success or failure of any relationship depends on the conversational signals such as voice level, pitch, or timing.”

Your “at work” communication sets the tone for your work relationships, says Dr. Deborah Tannen, communication expert and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Without reminders and some training, communications can go south pretty quickly. So why is it challenging for men and women to communicate clearly and easily with each other? And what are some guidelines that can keep communication on a more positive and productive path?

As management trainers in the automotive field for over 15 years, we are using broad concepts here and some generalizations on the differences between men and women based on our experiences in conducting seminars. And we are starting with the premise that men and women think differently, process information differently, and react in ways based on how their brains are organized.

Your Brain

Our brains are organized differently? Well, yes. Based on scientific evidence, male and female brains are wired differently from the time we are infants. We all have the same computing power and we are all born with the same amount of connections between the left and the right brain. Those different parts of the brain perform different functions. When testosterone enters the male body in infancy, it erodes many of the connections from the right brain. So, what does that do? One of the results of that process is that it stops the male brain from being able to quickly transfer stimulus from one side of the brain to the other side. It means the wiring diagram gets changed. In other words, it causes male communication to be much more linear and therefore much less complicated.

Female infants do not have this going on, allowing the web of networks from the left to right brain to continue to develop. This permits female brains to quickly shift from one brain core to the other. In grown ups we call it multi-tasking. So when we know we compute information differently, it helps us to have a much more accepting attitude when communicating. And with training on our part, we can ask for communication that works best for each of us, male and female.

Getting Started

How do we start to use this kind of information to ensure better communication in the workplace?  We all spend plenty of time at work and deserve to have it be a place where we thrive. Learning a new way could save you a lot of frustration when working with the opposite sex.

This can be tricky because there are emotional factors that also enter into communication. In our workshops, what can get dicey is when we ask both the men and women to identify the things that drive each other crazy. All of us hear complaints about the opposite sex daily. We see jokes on the Internet and hear them on TV and on the radio. But when a communication breakdown at work with the opposite sex occurs, none of that seems too funny.

Here are some of the characteristics of both sexes that get in the way when we want to be successful co-workers and good communicators.

This is what the women say to describe men in general when asked during our ACDC “Working with Men and Women in the Automotive Workplace” seminar:
•    Men are blunt and abrupt.
•    Men are impatient.
•    Men don’t listen or tune out.
•    Men don’t follow directions.
•    Men don’t pay attention to the details.
•    Men feel they are always right!

For women the list isn’t any nicer ... just different. Here are the most common complaints we hear from the men:
•    Women talk too much.
•    Women beat around the bush.
•    Women are too picky … too many details.
•    Women offer advice we didn’t ask for.
•    Women take everything personally.
•    Women tell you the same thing over and over.

The Learning

When we created these lists in the recent workshop, immediately one woman said, “Oh! I see three of these I have been doing all along. No wonder I get push-back.” And one man recognized that his auto parts manager, who is female, wanted “acknowledgement not attention.” By analyzing these behaviors that men and women exhibit towards each other, both sexes feel less confused and are more compassionate and understanding for the opposite sex.

In John Gray’s book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, he discusses that women desire caring and men want acceptance. If we read the above lists with that filter in mind, they make a lot more sense and explain why men and women can irritate each other.

In the heat of the moment, or the silence that follows a communication mishap, it takes discipline to employ this reasoning and not to react in the way our instincts tempt us to react. But if we use this information to make better relationships at work, the benefits pay off pretty quickly.

EGO at Work

An additional critical aspect of mis-communication is how quickly the ego gets engaged. In his book What Really Works With Men/Solve 95% of Your Relationship Problems (And Cope With the Rest), A. Justin Sterling defines the ego as that part of your personality that wants to be the best. He also warns that the ego is the predator of good relationships. When ego is engaged, an interaction quickly occurs and results in a combative interaction, which can manifest as verbal or silent (cold shoulder), or a fight to the end or a flee response. Many a regretful incident at work was caused by out of control egos.

Men and women display their egos differently. Regardless, there is sure to be an interaction that will have negative consequences for both parties.

Sign of the Ego

How will you know your ego is engaged? Before we get angry, our body will signal to us to let us know it is preparing to do battle. Some of us get red in the face; some take a strong posture or clench their teeth or fists; and some of us hold our breath. This is a warning that you need to take a personal time out and want to communicate when you are more prepared or clear-headed. To take a stand for good communication the phrase to use is simple: “I am upset (or unhappy) and I will talk to you about this later.”  Then, leave the conversation. This is not about being right; it about be caring or gracious enough to simply cut the communication short – right then and there. It is a smart and easy tool for everyone to use.

Making Changes
Change will occur only when there is recognition that the price of staying the same is too great or too costly. We change to relieve the pain we are feeling emotionally. Repeated military studies have determined that it takes 30 days without a relapse to make a change stick. Thirty days includes your days not at work, so those around you at home get the extra benefit of your behavioral work as a bonus.

It will be hard to accomplish this if you aren’t invested in the required changes and willing to take a close look at yourself.

In closing, here is a short review to accomplishing effective change:   
•    Practice, and then practice some more.
•    Accept that you will make mistakes.
•    Analyze what you learn about yourself and then use it to try again.

If this was easy there wouldn’t be so many books and workshops about this subject. Now go out there and communicate with caring and acceptance!  Good luck.

Craig and Deb Van Batenburg are the owners of Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC). Craig teaches the Hybrid Module at the ARA University. For more information about ACDC’s seminars, visit

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