When trying to prevent conflict or deescalate conflict, it is often helpful to consider how language barriers—in this case between men and women—helped fuel the original conflict. Only by understanding how men and women communicate differently can channels of communication be opened. Here are four points that are helpful when dealing with parties in conflict:
1. Women and men frame things differently. Men and women may have a different frame of when a negotiation begins.1 For example, a woman asks her husband where he wants to have dinner believing this to be the beginning of negotiations. A man names a restaurant believing this to be the beginning of negotiations. She interprets his signal to begin negotiations as a final word so they go to the restaurant even though she knows it has bad food. Men and women also frame conflict differently. Women are more likely to analyze conflict broadly—viewing a dispute as a series of ongoing events. In contrast, men are more likely to analyze conflict narrowly—seeing the dispute as one specific incident. An individual can improve communication by framing and reframing such that“[t]he most powerful way to change interaction is to change the frame without making it explicit: reframing by talking or acting in a different way”2 It is important to understand how reframing allows parties to switch styles depending on the set of circumstances.3 In divorce mediation for example, perhaps the marital conflicts arose in part from how men and women framed things differently. Therefore, in the context of property settlements or parenting plans, women may think about future disputes more broadly while men might only consider the disputes narrowly.
2. Face-to-face communication helps individuals frame things properly. When individuals are communicating through writing, internet, or phone, misunderstandings can easily arise. When a husband and wife going through a divorce have children, the parties often must communicate about pick-up times and drop-off times. In high-conflict cases, the parties are discouraged from face-to-face communication. However, face-to-face communication prevents misunderstandings because it is easier for parties to gather the communicator’s intent using language, body language, vocal tone, and gestures.4 In the context of family law negotiations, it may be helpful to have negotiations face-to-face where the former husband and wife are able to communicate (unless shuttle diplomacy is warranted for some other reasons like domestic abuse situations). If mediation becomes necessary, private caucuses should be discouraged.
3. Women are more flexible in adopting other styles. When women interact with men, the men’s norms tend to prevail because women adjust and adapt. Although this appears like male dominance, in some settings the gender-flex ability that women possess has become a tool.5 In the negotiation phase of a divorce or child custody battle, it is important to realize that women might adapt. It is important to be conscious and aware that women tend to adapt to men’s norms in a mixed-sex setting. Although the two parties will inevitably be in the same room, it is important for each party to realize how her communication styles change in the presence of the opposite sex.
4. Men are more likely to interrupt women. Research shows that men talk more in most settings (especially public), interrupt women frequently, control topic development, and withhold expressive feedback.6 Some studies interpret this conversational dominance as representing male power and status; however, previous studies have not taken into account whether a party should take offense to the interruption given the myriad of factors that influence a conversation.7
There is room for growth.
There is great opportunity when parties in a dispute realize that the dispute or failed negotiation was in part a result of communication differences between men and women. When parties understand the source of conflict, there is room for growth. Perhaps the parties will even begin to see their own fault in some of the issues. In effect, both men and women can become more mindful with this increased consciousness of their communication style. Additionally, both parties to the dispute can save face by acknowledging that their previous inability to resolve the dispute was a result of ignorance of the other party’s communication style.
1 See DEBORAH TANNEN, THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT! HOW CONVERSATIONAL STYLE MAKES OR BREAKS RELATIONSHIPS (1986) 23.
2 Id. at 75.
4 Paul Madlock, Communication Competence, the Key to Leadership, Conflict Management, and Employee Job Satisfaction (2008) at 8 citing R.B. Adler et al. LOOKING OUT/LOOKING IN: INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION (1993).
5 Mary E. Crawford, Gender and Language (1995) 104.
6 Id. at 103-104.
7 Id. at 104.