My first job out of college was working on Capitol Hill, and in one early project I had to coordinate getting information from a lot of decision makers. So to make sure nothing got dropped, I also needed to ask a lot of questions. I worked closely with Ryan, another guy my age. We started off with a fine relationship. But as the project went on, he didn’t seem to like me very much. He became quite short with me and would avoid conversations that weren’t strictly related to the project.
I chalked it up to a personality conflict. Boy, was I wrong.
I’ve now spent 15 years interviewing and surveying more than 10,000 men and teenage guys to find out how they process and hear things that we say in our personal relationships and work lives. If you’re a young woman starting to interact with guys in working settings – whether that is your first professional job, the mock trial team in college, or study groups in high school – knowing a few key tips can make a lot of difference. Here are four:
Tip #1: Recognize that (contrary to what you may have heard) men don’t actually like blunt directness
Months after that project, I came to find out: Ryan thought I was constantly challenging him. I had heard that “men appreciate directness” and had never noticed that, no, actually, men appreciate respectful directness. He was taking all my “direct” information-gathering questions (“What about this? What about that? Why did you do that?”), as challenges to his decision-making.
Even worse, I was often asking those questions in front of other people in the office. He wanted those people to think he was good at his job–and felt I was questioning his judgment in front of them. And I was clueless that I was coming across as someone no male colleague would want to work with.
Thankfully there are some very easy ways to ask questions and communicate in a way that honors how guys process things – and delivers better results for us as well.
Tip #2: How we phrase questions with guys is really (really) crucial
While guys may look strong and confident on the outside, there’s often a lot of vulnerability on the inside. Essentially, men (and teenage boys) are always questioning whether they’re any good at what they do – and hoping that no-one finds out that they aren’t as confident as they look. So as you can imagine it is very easy for them to see your questions as calling them out! Since our simple requests for more information could be perceived as a challenge or a “gotcha,” be mindful to phrase things in a way that doesn’t hit that nerve.
Here’s one of the most common examples. When a woman starts a sentence with “Why did you do . . . ?” (e.g. “Why did you do it that way, Brian?”) he might be hearing “Why did you do it that way, you idiot?” I know that might sound crazy, but that was the case for the vast majority of men and boys on my surveys!
In fact, just recently one college freshman told me that a girl in a project group had asked, “Why did you choose that picture for the title slide?”, and he found himself feeling defensive because he had put in a lot of work. He seemed quite surprised by my suggestion that she could literally have just been curious – not challenging.
So when you need to ask “why,” try always starting with affirmation: “I know you took a lot of time pulling up images for the PowerPoint.” Then ask the question in a way that won’t be seen as challenging their competence: “I’m curious; what were the reasons you settled on that one?” Of course you might in fact disagree with his direction! And in that case, try, “I might have gone in another direction; could you help me understand where you’re coming from?” It’s automatically a more respectful way of approaching it.
Tip #3: Get to the point – men want to hear the conclusion up front
The male brain is generally wired to think things through internally, while the female brain is wired exactly the opposite: we generally think things through by talking it through. In fact, it’s actually quite difficult for a man to fully think things through while you or he are talking. Even more crucial: unless he knows where you’re going, it is difficult for him to fully listen! So state the conclusion up front.
One man told me he employed a lot of teenagers in his ice cream shops, and was a bit frustrated that when female employees called to tell him something, they tended to want to tell the whole story before telling him the conclusion. Which made it extremely uncomfortable to listen! As he put it, “While she’s telling the story of this security problem that just happened, I don’t know if what she’s going to end with is ‘so everything is fine’ or ‘the shop burned down!”
Instead, a guy will much better process your story if you said something like this: “So, we had a problem and we had to call security due to a fight. But it’s all ok. Here’s what happened and the steps I took. Do you want to hear any more?” State the conclusion up front, a few of the details and ask if they want to hear any more. Otherwise it’s difficult for the guys to listen because they don’t know how—or when—it’s going to end.
Tip #4: Show that you know and value the difference between social time and work time
Girls will often ease into a study session or work meeting with a bit of personal conversation. In our minds, it builds better working relationships and gets social questions out of the way so we can concentrate on work. (“Hey, is everything okay after your fender-bender?”) But guys can get frustrated. When they are in do-things work mode and you appear to be in social mode (even if you aren’t!), annoyance and frustration can simmer under the surface. Even worse, guys have told me that switching back and forth from “work world” to “personal world” can be hard and disconcerting.
More importantly, if it happens too often (or for more than a token minute or two), he will perhaps start thinking that you’re not taking the project seriously. Guys have (privately) told me that they start thinking they may need to keep the big jobs out of your hands. And think about it: you would have the same feeling too, right? If you’re in turbo get-things-done mode and some guy wants to spend 15 minutes talking about his rock band, you would have the same thought!
The difference is that when guys are in “work mode,” any social chit-chat can be similarly frustrating. So watch for a guy’s cues and take it from there. If he asks, while waiting for the meeting to start, “what did you do this weekend?” then you have an opening to briefly talk social stuff. But otherwise, err on the side of being “all business” when you’re actually working with guys.
Learning how a guy’s brain is wired to process, hear and perceive information is one of the best tools for building great working relationships. If you practice a few of these subtle communication tips early, you’ll be way ahead of the curve as you interact with guys for years to come.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.