Communication and Gender Dynamics – The Intersection

Dr. Bhavana Nissima holds a doctorate in Communication from University of New Mexico, and has taught several communication related subjects in the United States and India for eleven years. She has mentored several books. She is a creativity and NLP Trainer, a popular writing coach, writing therapist and design-thinker. She is known as The Lightweaver for her abilities to weave ideas, places, people and objects together. She is also known as The Earthwoman for her love of all things natural and harmonious.

As a student who started off with Biological Sciences and who later forayed into the world of Communications, Gender Studies and Neuroscience, can you share with us how this journey has helped you in being a better communicator, coach and facilitator?

Natural science teaches the art of observing, collecting data and deducing information from it. It teaches one to dissociate and study. It encourages one to be objective. On the other hand, communication science teaches the complexity of interaction – of how we make meaning and how those meanings sculpt our experiences and consequences – what we do, with whom we belong and how we move.

Gender Studies brought in the critical lens of what is invisible, what is taken for granted and how assertion is both a psychological and sociological stance. Neuroscience returned me to human physiology and the brain, which is the seat of the experiences we process.

As a communicator, these multiple approaches helped me to quickly understand the other/s, become aware of my presumptions and be flexible in the way I communicate. As a coach and facilitator, I could quickly discern group dynamics, who needs what kind of attention and how to support them to achieve their goals. I am simultaneously aware of social dynamics and the psychological pieces of the puzzle.

What do you think is the role of emotions in formal communication? Do you think it is easy to disassociate completely from them and communicate?

There is a social prejudice against emotions. The only accepted emotions are positive ones. Other emotions are considered to be signs of weakness or flaws. Thus, most formal communications tend to be inauthentic.

We consider emotions to be problematic; I consider them to be allies who guide us to understand what and why we are experiencing in an event, or acting in a certain way. Now some emotions like anger, fear, or sadness may feel overwhelming. In such cases, it is possible to dissociate or detach oneself from it completely by following these steps: 1. Name the feeling/emotion you have 2. Observe how you are aware of this emotion (heart pounding, butterflies in your stomach, pressure in your chest, tightness of muscles etc). 3. Step out/away and see yourself in this state. 4. Decrease the size of the picture and put a frame around it. 4. Observe the picture. What do you learn?

Overwhelming emotions emerge from long-set default neural pathways which need to be disrupted, old memories resolved and new pathways built. So even if you dissociate for the moment, you will need to resolve the underlying issue.

In a world which talks about teams and ‘collective thinking’, what would you say to the quiet individual who prefers to work on their own? How would you encourage them to communicate in a manner that nurtures their psyche?

Be who you are. There is nothing like ‘I must work alone’ or ‘only in teams’. The important trait is to be flexible. If team effort is useful for the particular project you have taken up, then learn how to work in a team. If you can figure out a way to work alone and effectively, then figure that out.

The important part is this—stop believing you are stuck as ‘this kind of person’ or ‘that type of person’. You don’t need communication to nurture your psyche. You need to believe in yourself. Communication is what you do in alignment with yourself.

How do men and women differ in their communication strategies and the way they approach leadership?

First and foremost, all men don’t behave in the same way, nor do all women. Some men pick up what is called ‘feminine’ qualities while some women in leadership positions pick up ‘masculine’ qualities.

To move up the social hierarchy, currently masculine traits are privileged over feminine traits. Thus most leaders at some level, irrespective of gender, embody the dominant trait.

This is changing with some male leaders deliberately choosing nurturing, collaborating, and lateral hierarchy for working.

However in non-leadership positions, there tends to be a gender distinction in communication strategies. Women tend to use language that builds connection and community and men tend to use procedural, task-oriented language. The social structure which gave men access to resources (money/assets/powerful network) and denied women the same has its consequence on the nature of communication. Women for centuries had to be dependent on men to derive what they needed for their survival. Thus they developed strategies to work with men to extract it. At the same time, for many men certain access to resources were a given and their challenges were different. This is reflected in the words used as well as style of communication.

Words make the world and the world makes the word. Nowhere is it as evident than in gendered communication.

What are some of the challenges you have come across as a communications consultant?

The challenges are as follows:

  1. Few understand the importance of audience-centred communication. Instead some want only words to sound or feel good. And then there are those who want to appear intelligent by using jargon.
  2. Sometimes organisations don’t have a clear outcome defined nor are they aware of how communication may or may not aid in achieving their desired outcomes. Communication is one element in a system and works well when the system is clear about its core values and vision.
  3. Research in the field of communication other than mass communication (media/PR) in India is inadequate. This impacts the ecosystem of work in this area.

What role do communities such as Toastmasters International play in the building of interpersonal communication skills?

Interpersonal communication skills are essential skills for healthy living and responsible citizenry. How can we know what a parson’s opinion is on a particular matter unless they communicate? How will we listen unless they communicate effectively? Communities like TI help nurture strong democracies and equality within society. They encourage people who are shy/invisible to become visible, and provide a platform for them to assert themselves. This has ripple effects across the society and within families.

This article was first published on District 98’s bi-monthly newsletter ‘Communicate 98’. To read other articles, click here

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