In most of the educational and training venues where I’ve studied and trained, I have almost always been part of very large male minority. From grief counseling, to marriage and family systems classes, to transpersonal psychology study, I have invariably ended up in rooms where women outnumbered men ten or fifteen to one. Many of these settings required a set of relational skills that included some ease and facility with … listening.
Listening skillfully with some degree of emotional awareness, what I call Deep Listening, is much more than simply hearing. It seems to require some neural connectivity in the brain that UCLA neuro-psychiatrist, Dan Siegel identifies as the “resonance circuitry.” This appears to involve our mirror neuron system, the superior temporal cortex and the insula cortex. The early evidence suggests that men do not generally possess as many connections in these areas as women do. Many of us seem to have a “resonance connection deficiency.” Extrapolating from communication studies that found men speaking roughly 7000 words a day compared to women’s 20000, Louanne Brizendine, a neuro-psychiatrist at UCSF, places that deficiency at roughly 60%! That’s a pretty significant neuronal network handicap. Here’s what she has to say about it directly:
No surprise then, that some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men and that women, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men. The numbers vary, but on average, girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys … Girls speak faster on average – 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males. Men haven’t always appreciated that verbal edge. In Colonial America, women were put in the town stocks with wooden clips on their tongues or tortured by the “dunking stool,” held underwater and almost drowned – punishments that were never imposed on men – for the crime of “talking too much.” (p.36)
(So, is the practice of water-boarding simply a displacement by neuron-deficit male leaders onto Iraqi prisoners of war? An outlet for something men can no longer get away with taking out on women in America?)
Men – 0 – Pause
But wait, there’s more. Raphael Pinaud and his colleagues at the University of Rochester have discovered that a key hormone in auditory functioning is … estrogen. While men do convert some bit of testosterone into estrogen, we never end up carrying around anywhere near the amount that women do. Might we also ebb and flow throughout the month, with communication skills peaking like they do for women on day 12 of their cycle?
How important is estrogen to social ease and intelligence? A 2005 study by Rebecca Knickmeyer and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina measuring testosterone levels in utero found that those children with the lowest levels of exposure (and thus higher estrogen) were discovered to have the highest quality social relationships at age four.
The good news though, is that all is not lost for men. The brain is plastic; it can learn new things. And learning to listen skillfully is one of those things, but it takes practice. And more than a little. I’ve been teaching and practicing listening skills for more than 15 years, and I would grade my skill at listening at around a B, maybe B+. The biggest shift for me in this area is that I come to recognize much more quickly when I’m NOT listening well. Once I do, I am often able to course correct in mid-sentence. Sentences which, while I’m speaking them, often interfere with listening. Some people who know me well might take issue with the somewhat generous grade I’ve given myself, especially since I’m almost deaf in my left ear.
But if we men really want to improve our listening skills, we might B-L-O: Be Like Obama. We might go live as the lone male in a house with four other women! I guarantee it will improve our skills exponentially!
Women Manning Up
Because women would seem to have a considerable advantage, both neurologically and hormonally, I think it becomes incumbent upon them to voluntarily play the communication game with their tongue, certainly not clothespinned, but at least tied behind their back, to mix a metaphoric image. What that means is that if women want to be heard, they will have to do several things to level the playing field. First of all, they would be well-served to extend invitations for men to speak up, and then allow the space for that to happen. There are great benefits to be obtained by doing that. Next, as Kathy Speeth, a professor I had in graduate school once memorably instructed: “You can’t invite men to expose themselves, and then cut off their balls!” Not such an easy thing to do, since often when men do speak up, there’s a high probability that they’re going to say things that women are not necessarily going to love hearing. But once we are fully heard, we do tend to be able to listen with many more of our few, precious neural resources available.
On the other side of the equation, if we men are going to improve in the listening area, the best thing might be for us to man-up, grow some breasts and wear a “bro.” That extra estrogen will most likely greatly improve temporal lobe functioning.