This is the seventh, and last (for now) in a series of articles on frameworks for understanding and managing diversity. Part 1 looked at different developmental stages. Part 2 looked at the huge issue of cultural diversity. Part 3 looked at the sensitive question of religious differences, part 4 looked at the role of different values, part 5 looked at the role of personality differences and part 6 looked at at our different representational systems.
Last, but not least, as author John Gray has pointed out, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. This article looks at gender differences.
Again, there are risks of over-generalisation. But understanding some basic differences in how men and women handle stress can be important in today’s high-stress world.
Men handle stress by solving problems, completing tasks and prioritising. In a stressful situation, the first thing a man looks to do is to work out the most important things to be done, and then set out a plan to do them. This counts as task number one to be ticked off his list. He then works through the tasks, and as each task is completed his stress levels reduce. It will help enormously if large tasks can be broken down into smaller tasks.
Men also need down time to recover from stress, when they don’t interact with anyone. This can be sitting in front of the television, or retreating to a private place where they can be alone.
Women don’t get the same stress relief from ordering and completing separate tasks, or from spending time alone. Women tend to see everything as connected – and so the task list can never be completed because one thing leads on to another, and another, and another …. For a woman, anxiety levels can be reduced when she feels connected to another person. So when a woman talks about the things that make her feel worried or anxious, her purpose is to feel that connection through being listened to. This is because being connected stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin.
For women, oxytocin is a stress-relieving hormone. But oxytocin does not relieve stress for men. Instead, men relieve stress through activities which promote the release of testosterone. Physical activity and problem solving help men de-stress because they are testosterone producing activities. But testosterone does not help women with their stress.
When a woman talks about the things she is worried about, men often make the mistake of hearing this as a set of problems to be prioritised and solved. In order reduce his own stress the man might jump immediately into problem-solving. But this is not what the woman wants – at least at first. She doesn’t want the man to be thinking about how to solve the problems. She wants to feel heard and connected. The more she feels heard and connected, the less stressed she will feel. Once that emotional connection has been established, she may feel more able to tackle the problems herself. Or she may ask for help at this point – but not before she first feels that connection.
Women like to work collaboratively and to talk as they work, because this stimulates oxytocin.
But when men are feeling stressed, having an emotional connection is often the last thing they want. They are more narrowly focused on solving the problems and completing the tasks. All communication tends to be focused around looking for solutions, prioritizing what tasks need to come first, and solving the problems. Men are often almost silent when under stress.
A man’s natural inclination is to try first to solve the problem on his own, because this gives him the greatest feeling of achievement and the greatest release of testosterone. This is why will tend not to ask for directions when lost, except as a last resort. The exception to this rule is when men can integrate asking for directions as part of their strategy for solving the problems.
Once away from the place of doing and completing (for example over a lunch break or on getting home from work) men often want simply to be left alone to “zone out” in order to recover.
This ability and need to zone out means that a man can lower his stress levels even in a very messy environment. There can be bits of rubbish all over the floor, papers and dirty mugs all over his desk and he can still zone out and rest. Women, however, are likely to find it harder to relax in a messy environment because they are so connected to everyone and everything. This is a common point of friction between men and women when they are both tired and stressed. The woman wants the man to help tidy the place up so that she can then rest. When the man doesn’t offer to help and instead she sees him zoning out and resting, she feels unsupported and even more stressed. The man, on the other hand, resents the intrusion on his down time and feels more stressed because it seems he can’t be allowed to rest.
By understanding these gender differences we can reduce tension by responding more appropriately to each other, and not taking it personally when the person of the opposite sex doesn’t respond in the way we would like them to respond.
For a fuller understanding of these issues, I recommend reading John Gray’s Why Venus and Mars Collide.
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