Monday, July 26, 2010


One of the major sources of conflict between men and women lies in how they use language and conflict. Typically men value status and women esteem closeness but this isn't where the conflict arises. Indeed these two value systems are entirely compatible. The difficulty arises in how we use the same language without understanding what the other party is really saying and what they really want.

Men use language to negotiate status. Women use language to negotiate closeness. Conflict is a natural part of communication. Men use conflict to assert dominance and gain status. Women avoid conflict to maintain closeness. These differences can escalate and perpetuate conflict in ways that might seem inappropriate to each party especially when compared to how they communicate with people who use their respective communication style. This is because both parties end up inadvertently arguing right past one another. I'll address three common ways that this might happen.

1. Responsibility - Often a girl will be much angrier about a perceived injustice than she might otherwise be because the man tries to secure a status of blamelessness. He's offering any reason he can think of to prove to her that he didn't do anything wrong. Men tend to do this because they're conditioned that they'll lose status if they admit fault. This inadvertently escalates the conflict by invalidating her initial, legitimate upset. Now she's angry about the dude's excuses instead of whatever it was that started the argument. The solution to this problem lies in two parts: Men, you've got to realize that accepting responsibility for whatever it was, no matter how small, will win and maintain status with HER (the title "boyfriend" "husband" or "friend" is a symbol of interpersonal status - that's what you really want, isn't it?) Ladies, you have to remember that he's fighting to get out of blame because he thinks you'll lower his status for being fallible. Ask him for what you really want: an apology (an apology is a symbol of closeness and understanding - that's what you really want, right?).

2. Silence - Another reason a woman might seem to overreact is that she's been irritated by a behavior all along but hadn't said anything about it until now. She's keeping quiet because she wants to avoid conflict and maintain closeness. The pent up resentment has evolved into rage and she explodes at something he may have done before without penalty. It's like being kicked in the leg repeatedly: it doesn't hurt much the first time so they don't say anything (to avoid conflict and maintain closeness) but as the jabbing continues a bruise begins to form and eventually it hurts enough for them to cry out in pain and kick their tormentor in the genitals. The kicker is confused because they've been doing it for days/weeks/months/years and the kickee never indicated it was painful. The solution to this problem lies in two parts: Girls, you've got to speak up. He's not a psychic. Guys, she doesn't want to fight with you and that's why she didn't say anything until now.

3. Burials - Another scenario where one party might be perceived as overreacting is when the source of upset involves unresolved issues from other relationships. It's similar to the latter but might take some patience and empathy to sort through the details. An example might include a girl who gets upset one night when her significant other gets home late from work without calling. He might dismiss her behavior as irrational or be hurt that she doesn't trust him. What our heroine is really responding to the emotions brought up by the memory of her father getting home late from work because he was fooling around with his secretary, leaving her alone with her drunk abusive mother. The fear of abandonment surrounding the issue are based on the current situation only in part and the bulk of her feelings come from a real place that our hero may know nothing about. A healthy relationship might resolve the conflict by the girl telling her lover that he didn't do anything wrong and that she knows he didn't mean to upset her. He might reassure her that her feelings are valid and accept that he'll need to call in order to keep her from worrying. She might not be able to voice right away the reasons for her frustration and both parties will have to be patient until she can identify the mechanism for the trigger.

As a general rule I can say that about 20% of the emotional content surrounding any conflict between two people is about the current situation and the rest is based on past experience, misinterpretation or mistreatment of the situation. The responsibility lies with both parties in being aware of these differences and exercising empathy and patience.

I realize I'm generalizing about communication styles with respect to gender and while these generalizations are based on observation there are always exceptions to the rule. This blog is really about appreciating that we all have different communication styles and value systems and that just because a message seems clear to you, it doesn't mean that it's clear to whomever you're trying to communicate regardless of their gender.

Good luck and happy conflict resolution day!

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