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Huh. Turns out men really don't listen. Who knew?

There’s an old Far Side cartoon that pokes fun at what we say to dogs and what they actually hear. To listen to my wife, you’d sometimes think all I hear is blah, blah dinner, blah blah.

Now finally I have an excuse that is fully backed up by science. Ah, sweet vindication.

It comes as no surprise to any of us that men and women have different brains and that we use those brains in different ways; now research suggests that those differences extend to how we listen… and explain the mechanism that banishes me to the doghouse.

Indiana University School of Medicine researchers studying patterns in subjects’ brains with the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have found significant differences in the way men and women process verbal information. Men, it seems, listen with the left side of our brain, which is more linear and logic-driven; women use both sides. We also navigate differently than women. Women rely more on landmarks and context; men on the compass.

Emotional information is also handled differently, with each gender processing emotion in different parts of the brain. Children of both sexes process emotional events in the amygdala, the very oldest and most reptilian part of our brain that also holds our most primitive reflexes – what scientists refer to as the Four F’s (fight, flight, food… and reproduction). By the time they are in their mid-teens, though, girls can connect to their neocortex and explain their feelings; boys generally stay in their amygdala well into their 20’s and beyond, unable to explain or verbalise their emotions. Oh, and women also use about 25% more words than men in their communication.

To add to the complexity of cross-gender communication, both sexes engage in selective listening. It’s a phenomenon known as perceptual defense: we block out information that is unpleasant or inconvenient, or that doesn’t line up with what we’d prefer to believe. The words may be spoken, but they are filtered out and are genuinely not heard by the listener.

So let’s piece all this together.

How does this play out at work?

I’m willing to bet at least a good proportion of the people you work with are human. As such, they all have a history, they each have established likes and dislikes, they each carry with them their own ‘stuff’, and they all unconsciously engage in perceptual defense, filtering everything that happens around them.

How can a good communicator improve the odds? Supplement the spoken or written word with pictures, imagery, and other sensory cues. In addressing a primarily male audience, minimise words and avoid those that might trigger defenses. In addressing a female audience, weave in emotional cues and language that will engage both hemispheres of the brain. Paying attention to differences in gender listening can improve communication.

My wife’s right. I don’t listen… in fact, I can’t even hear her half the time. I’m a victim of evolution.

What a relief. Pass me the remote.

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