My friend Dee told me a short story of an event that happened to her. The story, which I am about to recount for you highlighted a behavior I have since begun to see in a new light.
A conflict occurred during a recent virtual meeting in which Dee was speaking to a class professor about course delivery problems and potential solutions. As is true for many new to virtual learning, Dee’s experience caused her frustration. All of her colleagues and classmates were feeling the pain too.
When her sentiments were echoed by discussion in the virtual meeting chatbox, she knew she had struck a common nerve. Her classmates seemed glad that someone was finally speaking up.
Before she could finish, a male classmate abruptly interrupted her comments and changed the subject to something personal about him. Apparently, this was not the first time. This man had a track record of interrupting others, especially the women in the class.
To her surprise, another man responded. The new male colleague directly challenged the rude interlocutor on his disrespectful behavior towards women and set straight rules of order.
The other man then yielded the floor back to Dee, who acknowledged the offense and finished speaking to the group on the primary concern at hand.
For my Dee, this was a rare and touching moment. A first of seeing one man call another man to task. Yet rather than act the hero, the gentleman gave the woman back her own space and therefore her voice.
“Good men do this,” she said to me. “They empower women as equals, as worthy, and make sure they are heard.”
To my friend Dee; message received, and thank you.
This made me think.
In the few weeks since hearing this story, I paid closer attention to conversational dynamics in many scenarios– work settings, casual conversation, virtual discussions, and even in my own personal relationships. I noticed patterns of women being preempted in conversation more than I realized.
What surprised me was the speed with which many women stop speaking mid-sentence when the voice of a man begins to speak.
How often has this happened? Why am I just now picking up on it?
I witnessed nothing as aggressive as what my friend Dee described. As a 6’1’ former marine, I have no qualms with throwing the flag. Yet I did find myself apologizing more often for repeatedly jumping ahead of female speakers.
This defect in listening skills runs a bit deeper than “mansplaining”. Numerous communication studies have shown that the speed of thought is faster than the speed of speech. Most people speak at about 125 words per minute. Yet we have the mental capacity to understand what people are saying at 400 words per minute.
Our brains move rapidly to fill in gaps and make assumptions. And when you sense that you know what someone is about to say, you are normally more right than wrong.
Yet knowing what someone will say is not the same as capturing the spirit of what they are saying. As I grew to understand this, I realized the act of preempting with my own commentary often lends less value than what I had intended. This is just the beginning of what I missed.
I offer more observations in an effort to elucidate, though I would not say I have this all figured out. Awareness is the first step in addressing a challenge.
As I reflected deeper, I noticed that when I jump on a man who is speaking his comments, he is likely to keep speaking. We will comment in tandem and no one thinks twice. Often, if I do the same when a woman is speaking, she will stop.
Since hearing Dee’s story and noticing this trend, I have apologized many times. I yield with a simple, “…and you were saying?” so that she may continue. I may have to apologize more times as I lay the groundwork for a new habit.
My final observation has played out in group settings.
Because I am chairing more meetings these days, I understand my responsibility to foster positive and effective discussions that ensure many perspectives are heard. Again, I would not hesitate to address unacceptable disrespect– male or female, colleague, subordinate, or superior.
Yet very often, communication gaffes are not intentional. Through close observation, I uncovered a slight Jedi mind trick.
When I notice a woman has stopped speaking, I listen as the man finishes his thoughts. Provided his comments are effective and in line with the discussion, I add confirmation to what both have shared, and then I deftly pivot the discussion back to the woman. I invite her to continue expressing the rest of the story. Very often, she accepts the opportunity to continue. The rest of the story offers greater context that enhances the entire dialogue. A sense of closure is achieved.
In sports, this is what one might call ‘a heads up play’. The exchange costs seconds. The flow of conversation is unimpeded. A clear and impactful message is sent.
I have heard many people talk about the importance of listening and effective dialogue throughout this year of pandemic and social unrest.
We are all born with ears yet listening is the last skill we truly learn to develop. Yielding the floor. Making space and truly listening is even harder work.
I would like to say I adopted these practices because I am some enlightened person. The truth is, I’ve exhausted all of the other options. Most of my lessons have come through the pain of misconceptions and missed opportunities.
To learn more on the art of listening and deftly managing conflict in dialogue, I recommend the book Crucial Conversations. If you are ready for the next level, a psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg created a solid path through a course of study called Nonviolent Communication.
Building this awareness is worth the effort.
And to the mansplainers, you actually have my sympathy. You have no idea what you are missing.
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