By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
“I’d like to talk with you about something” she says.
“What now?” he asks with a sigh.
“Well I’d like to know what we are going to do about this problem” she says starting to get frustrated.
“I’ll take care of it. Stop pressuring me!” he shouts.
“I’m not pressuring you. I just want to help and I think we should talk about it,” she says imploringly.
“I said I’d take care of it. I’m working on it. Why won’t you get off my back?” he says emphatically.
If this dialog sounds familiar chances are you are married or in a long term committed relationship. Secondly this type of conversation is even more common for married couples who also happen to be business partners. Probably a week doesn’t go by without this type of dialog for entrepreneurial couples. It is not only extremely frustrating to have this miscommunication, but it can wreak havoc in the relationship.
To unravel this miscommunication and ultimately design an improved method of problem solving, you need to understand some gender differences that are the underpinnings of many misunderstandings between men and women.
First, when couples live and work together there is an increased potential for misunderstanding. It is not because entrepreneurial couples are worse communicators than other couples. Rather it is due to the fact that you talk more because you are together more often. The more you are around anyone and the more you talk with that person, the more opportunity there is for miscommunication, misunderstanding and arguments. Whether you like it or not entrepreneurial couples have to be even better communicators and even more patient with each other than do other couples.
Second, when you work with the one you love, misunderstandings carry more weight than they might with someone you are not as emotionally connected with. With your spouse, a parent or a child, you are much more concerned about getting along well with them. You care more what they think of you and if they believe you care about them. This emotional connection means that you are more sensitive to their criticism and potentially more defensive.
Third, men and women problem solve differently. Because men are very goal oriented problems become something they need to conquer. Women on the other hand are process oriented. This means they approach problems as opportunities to explore options. While men are competitive and want to prove themselves by solving the problem on their own, women strive to include others in the process of problem solving to come up with a group decision.
So if we take another look at the dialog above with these three considerations in mind, the miscommunication is much easier to unravel. First, the wife is trying to have a conversation with her husband about a subject that they have probably beaten to death, and with no resolution. She means well, but he feels like she is just shoving his face into the problem once again. Secondly, the husband also believes that she is accusing him of failing to solve the problem or to solve it quickly enough. In reality, she is offering to help him solve it. Third, the wife assumes that her husband understands that she is trying to help when she asks questions, but he can only hear that she is asking questions he cannot answer.
Let’s take a look at a revised dialog where the husband and wife recognize the communication differences between them and actually get to the bottom of the problem to be solved.
“I know that we have talked about this subject until both of us are tired of it. And I know that you have been working hard to think of a way to take care of this problem. I have a few more ideas that I want to share with you to see if we can finally come up with a solution. OK?” she asks.
“You’re right I am tired of it and I am doing the best I can. What more do you want from me?” he asks, with frustration.
“What I want is to help. I think the best solution will come from the two of us putting our heads together and brainstorming some ideas that will work for both of us. I want to take care of this as much as you do and I want to be part of the solution,” she says.
“Well I’d be happy to turn the problem over to you if you think you can handle it any better,” he retorts.
“No I don’t want to take it over all by myself. And I don’t want you to handle it all by yourself either. It’s too much for both of us separately, or it would have been solved by now. But together we can probably conquer it. Will you work with me? Hopefully we can come up with an answer that has a part for me and a part for you in it,” she suggests.
“Well I suppose, when you put it that way, that I could use the help. I haven’t been getting very far on my own. Thanks,” he concluded.
Now every dialog will not go this smoothly and there are probably an endless number of possibilities for problem solving this particular issue for this couple. However, what the new dialog does represent is that the couple is recognizing that their communication style needs to be respectful and specific in order for the other person to feel free of criticism.
They also recognize that they need to speak the other person’s language. Men need to recognize that the wife is not always criticizing when she is asking to discuss the status of a problem. Men need to hear her questions as an attempt to understand the problem and a way to ask what she can do to help. On the other hand, women need to recognize that the husband will not understand you want to help if you just ask questions. She needs to actually offer concrete help, such as “Let me make those phone calls, while you do the measuring.”
Even though working with your spouse can be a lot of work when it comes to navigating the communication pitfalls, you could look at the situation as an opportunity to fine tune your communication skills with all people, customers, employees and family members. The better you are at reading those subtle differences in style that can lead to tragedy or success, the more likely you are to be successful in all your communications in business.