When I speak in auditoriums and say “Women listen to feel, and men listen to fix” – I see smiles in the audience, nodding heads and chuckles of agreement. Yet people are most surprised that based on the academic literature, there is limited scientific evidence to support the claim that genders listen materially differently.
In their 1995 study “The Listening Styles Profile,” Watson, Baker, and Weaver asked 1,799 undergraduate students sixteen questions to rate their listening in four categories: people, action, content, and time-oriented styles.
People-oriented listening emerged as a style where concern for others feelings and emotions was paramount. People-oriented listeners tried to find areas of common interest with others and respond empathetically to them.
Content-oriented listening reflected a preference for receiving complex and challenging information. Content-oriented listeners tended to evaluate facts and details carefully before forming judgments and opinions.
The time-oriented listening style involved a preference for brief or hurried interactions with others. Time-oriented listeners tended to let others know how much time they had to listen or tell others how long they had to meet.
In their findings, they found that women and men listen differently: “Females endorsed the people and content styles more strongly while males oriented more toward the action and time styles.”
In the 2001 study “Temporal Lobe Activation Demonstrates Sex-Based Differences during Passive Listening,” Phillips, Lowe, Lurito, Dzemidzic, and Mathews demonstrate that different brain parts activate when women and men listen to the same information.
Jack Zenger took this study to its logical conclusion and created an assessment in which 4,306 participants rated their listening. Then, unlike in other studies, he extended the evaluation to allow others to rate the listening of the person who took the initial assessment. He found that when men and women were compared, “females proved to be significantly better listeners” and “demonstrated a significantly stronger preference for listening than males.” Zenger also concluded that listening ability improves with age. (Ironically, your ability to hear may decrease with age.)
In the last 4 years, we have researched over 22,000 listeners, and when it comes to interrupting while listening – women interrupt 1.2% more than men say that they interrupt. The reality is women are more conscious of interrupting than men and there is a significant self-assessment bias when people are asked to notice their listening barriers.
When asked how they would rate themselves as a listener compared to others in their workplace, 74.8 percent of respondents considered themselves either above or well above average. When asked to rate the listening of others, only 12.1 percent chose above or well above average.
What does this mean? It means that we think we are much better listeners than others. Not just much better, six times better.
The first listening barrier is a self-awareness bias — we think we are better at listening than others perceive us to be. We believe we are better listeners than the speaker thinks. There is no universal and shared understanding of how to listen effectively. The 1.2% difference between genders and their interruption is NOT a material difference between them so I would caution people to draw any conclusions based on the slight difference.
When we analyzed the interruption data across age groups, there was a noticeable difference in interrupting. The younger you are, the less likely you are to interrupt. Although by the age of 40, there is a noticeable change, and you are 12% more likely to interrupt. When over 50 years are 26% more likely to interrupt.
If women and men listen differently, the evidence is mixed and so too is the proposition that one gender listens “better.” Personally, I recommend that, whatever someone’s starting position, we can improve our listening skills one conversation at a time.