I’ve been focused on the issue of differences in styles of managing conflict, differences on the masculine-feminine continuum. On the masculine side of this continuum is “Aggression” – direct confrontation of the issue. On the feminine side is “Avoidance,” avoiding a confrontation or confronting an issue indirectly. First, I wrote an article that you can find on The Huffington Post. Then I wrote a blog post on how I find little redeeming value in the feminine style of conflict. I believe there are deep roots to the differences in masculine and feminine style of conflict – in nature and nurture. In other words, changing how we individually tend to handle conflict takes conscious effort.
As always, because both men and women behave in both masculine and feminine ways, we let our prototype Max represent the masculine side of the masculine-feminine continuum and the prototype Fran represent the feminine side. Within the feminine worldview, Fran sees herself in a network where relationships matter more than status or winning. It is logical, then, that she would avoid conflict and handle issues in an indirect way in order to preserve relationships. In the masculine worldview, Max sees himself in a hierarchy where status and winning trump connections. His direct approach to conflict is designed to accomplish goals, build his status and help him “win.”
Max has more testosterone than Fran. Under stress, Max secretes testosterone, which drives aggression and the “fight or flight” response. This made for a good survival mechanism back when we shared the planet with wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. It still does when a burglar is at the door and the man of the house (who is generally larger and stronger than his female mate) takes on the role of protector. And it influences how the Max will respond when Sam cuts him off in a meeting. He is more likely to go right back at Sam or confront him directly.
Under stress (from a tiger, a burglar or Sam), Fran has a large repertoire. According to a UCLA study women may secrete oxytocin, a bonding hormone that “buffers” the fight or flight response.” This (a) drives her to protect her offspring and (b) triggers the “tend and befriend” response – reaching out to other women. Connecting with others provides strength in numbers, compensating for the female’s smaller size and lesser strength. When Sam cuts her off in a meeting, Fran will not risk her relationship by confronting him – but she may go to her friends to vent or seek solace.
There are cultural contributors to the masculine-feminine differences in handling conflict, including how little ones play. Little boys’ games involve conflict, aggression and winners and losers. Girls tend to play games with little conflict in which relationships matter more than winning (or the rules). Little boys, at least until fairly recently, have been taught not to cry or express vulnerability. Anger is accepted more from boys than girls. When a “difference” arises, little Max wants to win; little Fran prefers a win-win solution.
Max is more likely to quickly get over a conflict with a colleague; it isn’t personal to him, and handling it directly brings closure. Because of how she values relationships, it hard for Fran to confront a friend or colleague directly — even though indirect forms of conflict (suppressing her anger or telling others about it) may be more damaging in the end. Conflict often involves emotions and is personal to Fran, and she may hold onto it for a very long time!
There are strengths and limitations of both styles. Max’s direct conflict can get issues on the table and bring closure. But it can be ugly and can damage relationships. Avoiding conflict is fine if the issue isn’t worth dealing with; but the issue can fester and lead to a distorted “blow up.” Fran’s indirect form of conflict can take the fairly benign form of “ostracizing” the person who has upset her. But it can take really damaging forms, for example, talking to others about the issue, rather than to the person involved.
It would be nice if we could just choose the style that is best in the circumstances. But that takes recognizing that nature and nurture may have conspired so that we are wired to do it a certain way. Overcoming our default may take some work!