Women, do you sometimes wonder how your male business partners can get into a heated discussion during a meeting, end the meeting with the issue unresolved, yet walk out of the room as best friends?

Men, do you get frustrated when talking with your female co-workers about one topic, and they bring fourteen more topics into the conversation—all of which seem totally unrelated?

We all know men and women think and act differently, both at work and at home, but knowing there are gender differences is only half the challenge. To have successful working relationships with members of the opposite sex, you also have to know why those differences matter and what to do about them.

Once Upon a Time…

Before we can look forward to a harmonious future, we need to begin by looking back into human evolution. Once upon a time, many thousands of years ago, communities consisted of hunters (men) and gatherers (women). The hunters left every morning and tried to hunt food for the community. The gatherers stayed home to pick the nuts and berries and make preparations for the food the men would bring back. As far back as scientists can tell, women and men had different roles, and as a result, their brains developed in different ways.

For example, a man’s brain goes in and out of a rest state all day. Millions of years ago when men sat in trees waiting for their prey they had to be quiet and disengaged. They didn’t want to scare away their potential dinner. Their brains evolved to learn to engage, disengage, engage, disengage throughout the day.

Women, on the other hand, couldn’t do that. They had to be on high alert all day, protecting themselves and their children as they gathered necessities and tended to the community’s needs. Their brains evolved to be always active.

In fact, if you look at a functional MRI of a man’s brain at rest and a woman’s brain at rest, you’ll see the woman’s brain firing everywhere, whereas the man’s brain is much quieter.

What other differences are there between men and women, from a brain wiring perspective? Here are a few highlights:

Tips for Better Communication

For men…

Keep women’s white matter in mind. They are not jumping from topic to topic just to annoy you. In their brains, everything is connected.

Remember that women “tend and befriend.” As a result, they have a tendency to use “up” talk, where it sounds like every sentence ends with a question mark. Or, they say such things as “What do you think?” This does not mean they don’t know what to think. They simply want to gain consensus.

This also explains why women may take longer to answer a question: because of their greater proportion of white matter, they’re filtering that question through the article they read this morning or what their colleague said two days ago. If you think of it like sorting in a computer, they’re doing a huge sort through an entire database to arrive at their answer.

Women the world over tend to use more emotionally loaded words than men do when they communicate, including high-drama phrases and words such as “always” and “never.”

For women…

If you want to talk to a man about something that’s critical and you think he’s going to be defensive, don’t do it at the 9 a.m. meeting or after hours at the company dinner. Remember that daily cycle.

Don’t jump from subject to subject, and always condense your thoughts into short sentences. Men have a word limit (this has been scientifically tested), and once they reach their word limit, they simply can’t process any more information.

Remember that a man’s brain shifts into that rest state throughout the day. When you’re talking to him and he’s fidgeting, tapping his fingers on the table, or even doodling during the meeting, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s bored or not interested. In fact, it probably means just the opposite. He’s unconsciously forcing himself to stay alert, keeping his brain active by that movement.

Closing the Great Divide

The key is to accept this information, embrace it, and implement it as a new structure of thought in your own mind. Become conscious and aware of the differences between the sexes and use this awareness in your daily interactions with others. By doing so, you will ease some of the frustrations you feel when communicating with team members and you will start building your professional relationships based more on deeper understanding, cooperation and trust. n

JEAN KELLEY helps corporate leaders all over the
world to achieve their highest potential. She is the
author of
Dear Jean: What They Don’t
Teach You at the Water Cooler.