Saturday Morning Rounds November 14th, 2020 - Gender differences in conflict

Posted by BossB, MD on November 14, 2020
BossB, MD

Saturday Morning Rounds

A weekly round-up of career & negotiation content for women physicians


What got our attention

A number of clients this week have asked us to help them with hard conversations coming up in their near futures - some over job negotiations, some over issues at their existing work, and even one who wanted to strategize and role-play an upcoming conversation in her personal life.

The thread that binds between all of these hard conversations, the thing that makes them hard for most people in the first place, is that they all carry a potential for "conflict."

We're going to focus on that topic as the theme of this week's rounds, and we'd like to start with some research on the differences between how men and women approach interpersonal conflicts.

In an article titled Brief Report: Young Adult Women Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts, the author (Dr. Patricia Flynn Weitzman, PhD, CMC) conducted a "study of social cognition during interpersonal conflict... with 100 young adult women (mean age = 25 years)" in which she surveyed the "nature of the relationship between the participant and the other person (work-based, personal, or impersonal)," then coded their interpersonal negotiation strategies using the following model:

The author found that:

"Most strategies used (46%) were low-level unilateral strategies, e.g., giving in to the demands of the other person. Most participants reported conflicts at work. These data, taken with other research on young adults' perceived lack of ability at handling conflicts at work, suggest that constructive conflict management programs may be important for young adult women in the school-to-work transition."

In another study titled Women's and Men's Scripts for Interpersonal Conflict, author Judi Beinstein Miller conducted 2 studies.

"In the first, exploratory study, undergraduate women and men wrote scripts for a conflict between two friends over broken promises. In the second, they created scripts for five different types of interpersonal conflicts by selecting from among previously written responses that depict alternative beginnings, middles, and ends to each conflict..."

"Development of the men's scripts depended more on the offended party's initiation of conflict, whereas development of women's scripts depended more on whether the offending party apologized. Results suggest that men may use more personal or independent criteria in representing the management of conflict, whereas women may use more interpersonal or interdependent criteria."

So to summarize, it seems that women in conflict (a) tend to choose low-assertiveness strategies (especially at work), and (b) are less likely than men to initiate conflict, often choosing to do so by apologizing when they do initiate.

And that is likely not a problem, when women are negotiating with other women.

However, when negotiating with men (or with women who are operating under rules and procedures written by men, in a system created by men :/), these strategies will lead to catastrophic results.

The authors of these respective studies, being the good scientists they are, focus far more on describing differences than prescribing solutions, so we'll dive into the latter in our "tip of the week."

Who we're following

First off, Veteran's Day occurred this past week in the USA, so happy (belated) Veteran's Day to everyone, and to our readers who served, thank you. In that vein, one of our favorite Tweeps in general also happens to fit that description, so we'd like to take this opportunity to highlight her! Dr. Agnieszka Solberg, MD (@AgnesSolberg) is an interventional radiologist, a social media leader and founder of RadChicks (a group that advocates for gender equity in radiology), a US Army veteran, and just an all-around badass. Most definitely worth a follow if you haven't already!!

BBMD tip of the week

While there are definitely gender differences, on average, between how women and men approach conflict, we aren't here to teach you how to:

"<insert anything we teach> like a man"

nor to

"<insert anything we teach> like a woman"

We're here to teach you how to be effective, regardless of whether you identify as masculine, feminine, somewhere in between, or all/none of the above.

So, what are the keys to engaging in conflict effectively? 

  • Reframe - Your relationship with conflict and your expectations going into one
  • Own - The emotional state, or "frame," of the conversation
  • Seek to Understand - Your counterpart's values, priorities, emotions, and goals
  • Assert - Yourself, your values, your priorities, your emotions, and your goals
  • Persist - Toward either (a) a solution that's acceptable to all parties, or (b) the conclusion that no such solution is possible

The first and most important step of this process is reframing.

When most people think of conflict, they associate "damage" as an inevitable result. However, conflict is defined by us simply as "a state of mismatched or competing goals."

When we understand that conflict doesn't have to involve any kind of damage, relational or otherwise, it frees us to see conflict for what it truly is - the state in which the real progress and growth, in any relationship, occurs.

Conflict has the potential to be productive or destructive, pleasant or painful, and which side of the spectrum it ends up on relies largely upon your expectations going in.

Okay, so now you've developed a positive personal relationship with conflict - congrats! But what about your counterpart? What if they're not on the same page? The fact of the matter is that you cannot control whomever you're engaging with, so it's on YOU own the emotional frame of the conversation, regardless of your counterpart's actions.

If things are pleasant and productive, that doesn't take a whole lot of effort.

However, when you feel the emotional resonance between you and your counterpart start to dip, when you sense that emotions are becoming negatively charged, it's your job to take ownership in that moment and steer the ship toward smoother waters.

Don't worry though, there's a little thought exercise you can use to help control the situation. Whenever you see someone start to get worked up, when you see that their emotions are beginning to control them instead of the other way around, imagine that they *poof* just turned into a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It'll enable you to maintain:

  • Empathy for your counterpart - they're just a toddler after all!
  • Control over yourself - it's a lot easier to react adaptively when you don't view your counterpart's negative emotional swings as a threat
  • Levity - A sense of humor and lightness is key to moving past the moment of conflict without your counterpart losing face; graciousness wins here

Once you've reframed and owned the conflict, the rest is honestly downhill from there.

Lean into empathy, first seeking to understand your counterpart's position. This will make them feel heard and valued, while also providing you an informational advantage.

Next, assert your own position. We use the term "assert" very intentionally - assertiveness is the midpoint on the line between weakness and aggressiveness, so make sure that your statements cannot be misunderstood as either weak or aggressive, and you're doing it! Simply state your points in a pleasant yet matter-of-fact tone, and let silence do the work from there.

Lastly, engage the entire time with a sense of certainty that you'll either reach a mutually beneficial agreement, or you'll discover that no such solution is possible. When we persist forward toward a solution with an understanding that the "worst case" won't occur unless it's already inevitable before we've started (ie we'll leave no stone unturned in our seeking for a solution), it "takes the sting out" of the conversation and removes fear from the equation, allowing us to move more freely and effectively.


This is all a lot easier said than done, and you don't want to be caught trying to remember these steps in your head for the first time during one of the most important negotiations of your life.

Which is exactly why our curriculum is structured in such a way that you get to:

  • Learn about the theory
  • Practice using role-play scenarios and other activities
  • Watch us deliver a model response/example
  • Practice again until you have your own version of "perfect" down pat
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Quote we're contemplating

"Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." - Rumi

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Have a wonderful weekend, y'all!