Myths that Prevent Real Conversations

Myths That Prevent Real Conversations

There are many things that we come to believe over time about how we connect with each other.  These unspoken or spoken “rules” of communicating and relating to one another can have real power over how we communicate with each other…… or don’t. These rules can be particularly powerful in and around gender relationships. Anyone who believes that men and women are from entirely different planets – and communicate as such could be upholding some very damaging beliefs that get in the way of having very real and intimate conversations.  Some of these very myths have a way of sneaking into our consciousness and our believe systems, influencing us in ways we may not even consciously realize.

It is helpful to unearth some of these myths and explore if there is any truth to them. At the very least it is worth exposing them and becoming aware of how they could be influencing our thinking.

Myth Number 5 – Women Speak More Than Men and are Better Communicators

Just turn on children’s shows or movies for a while and you will quickly see the stereotype of women who talk and talk and talk, while the men are quietly stoic, rolling their eyes.  Female characters are often presented as verbal and articulate and the male counterparts are often non verbal or grunting for effect. This myth is perpetuated through all types of characters in movies, books and popular stories.

In fact, women and men talk about the same amount.  What is different is the how and what of their communication.  A review of 56 research studies by Deborah James and Janice Drakich found that men talk more than women, with females talking more than males in only two studies. A more recent University of Arizona study in the journal Science reported that both genders speak almost the exact same number of words daily (16,000).

It is also a commonly held belief that women are more skilled with conversations than men. 

Myth: Females are more verbally skilled than males.
Fact: While a 2005 meta-analysis of studies on gender differences in verbal/communicative behavior by Janet Shibley Hyde found a moderate effect size favoring women, it also revealed that there was a close to zero effect for reading comprehension, vocabulary and verbal reasoning.

Myth: Females seek to connect with others, while males use language with the intention of accomplishing things.
Fact: Studies by researchers Kathy O’Leary and Pamela Fishman indicate that the genders may differ in patterns because they’re engaged in different activities or are playing different conversational roles. These differences don’t necessarily appear when males and females are doing the same things or playing the same roles.

Myth: Males are more direct and not as polite in communicating.
Fact: Hyde’s meta-analysis showed that there was only a small effect size favoring males when it came to conversational interruption and assertive speech. There’s actually more variation in communication within each gender than there is when you compare any differences between men and women.

As the research shows, the language skills of men and women are nearly identical. Yet the myths they debunk are still used to support the premise that the genders are regularly misunderstanding each other due to mere genetics. With the media fully on-board the Mars/Venus bandwagon, “failure to communicate” across genders has been used to explain everything from why men don’t take out the garbage upon request to why a rapist didn’t understand his victim’s attempts to resist. Ultimately, both genders suffer.

Myth Number 4 – The Heart of Effective Communication is a Well Crafted Message

I know so many people who anxiously fret over the words they select and how they construct their messages to ensure the best possible communication. After an interview or a meeting, they agonize over whether they said the right things in the right way. Thankfully, the idea that effective communication stems from a well crafted or well chosen message is a myth.

While the language we choose and the words are certainly important, they are not the sole source of great communication. Listening is perhaps most important.  Stephen Covey had written “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” .

When we listen with the intent to craft our reply, we aren’t really listening at all. The act of listening changes the interaction considerably and moves us to a more authentic and effective interaction. But listening isn’t as simple or easy as it sounds (McKay, M., Davis, M. and Fanning, P. 2009).

Much has been written about what it takes to really listen. The work of Carl Rogers is full of great directions and support on how to shift your practice to really listen. Great listening is not about becoming a parrot or just feeding back to people what they say. It is about truly focusing on what people are intending to communicate and trying to connect with the underlying feelings of the message they are trying to communicate. Pay attention to the entire message, including all the delivery mechanisms, including tone, body language and any other way the person is choosing to convey their message.  And a great way to check out your understanding is simply to reflect back to the person and check out your understanding.

So really, the “right words” might be a great start, but listening and connecting are the real way forward to a more meaningful communication.

Myth Number 3 – Telling It Like It Is Equals Healthy and Direct Communication

I once worked with someone who had gone through a lot of tough stuff in her life in a short period of time.  She had lost her father quite tragically, lost her marriage and her house and was stuck in a dead end job that she hated.  When her mother told her she was re-marrying just a few short months after her father died, she went into what she now calls an “honesty overload”.  She was done with the crap life had dealt her and she decided she needed to get real with all her friends and family.  She systematically booked meetings with her friends and family to tell them what bugged her about them.  She did it in a way that people felt attacked and misunderstood.  What was under the guise of “direct, healthy communication” was actually verbal attacks coming out of her personal pain.

Whenever someone “tells it like it is”, it usually means they are telling it as they see it.  This is not always the most helpful or healthy way to approach communication. It might feel great for the person “getting it off their chest” but how helpful is it for the other person? How does that interaction build the relationship? How does that exchange bring you closer or connect you in a better way? Consider the delivery and the intention of the exchange.

This doesn’t mean you want to hide or sugar coat the truth, it just means consider the intention and the motive behind the communication. Sometimes, our pain can be a powerful driver and we don’t always see where the conversations will lead. Telling it like it is often does not equal healthy and direct communication.


Myth Number 2 – Verbal Communication is Only 7 Percent of the Message

How many times have you heard that our body language and our non verbal cues are most of a message?  This is one of the great communication myths of our time.  It is quoted everywhere it seems.  If it were true, Google Translator would be unnecessary and we could visit foreign countries without changing a thing about our language. We could simply use charades to make our way through. Or we could navigate foreign films without subtitles.

The root of this powerful and well travelled myth is from a study out of the University of California in 1967, looking at how well people could determine attitude from photos of faces while hearing pre recorded clips of one word with tone.  The intent of the study was to determine the impact of the consistency of the alignment of the facial expression with the verbal statement. The study was never intended to determine what percentage of a message or conversation was non verbal, yet it is been applied broadly with this assertion.

Human communication is quite complex and non verbal communication is no different. Non verbal gestures need to be understood within their context and as part of an entire picture. Someone crossing their arms is not necessarily defensive. If you do not consider the entire picture, you could be missing the contextual piece that the person may be cold and shivering. The simple ratio of only 7 percent of the message is made up of the actual words we choose is simplistic and does not capture the nuances of the human message.

The next time you hear someone quote that old ratio, you can probably be assured they have not read the original research by Mehrabian.

Myth Number 1 – Believing We Had a Great Conversation – Assuming that What I Said is What You Heard

“The Single Biggest Problem in Communication is the Illusion That it Has Taken Place” – George Bernard Shaw

Just because you walked away from a conversation feeling like you were clear, direct, respectful, even artful, does not mean it was actually a great conversation.  You might feel AMAZING and think you really got your point across.  Unfortunately, we can often rely too heavily on our own interpretation of a conversation or an exchange without actually checking it out with the other person.  This is one of the most dangerous myths of all.

Without checking it out with each other and seeing how you both feel about the exchange and the level of understanding of each other, you really don’t know how it actually went.  Assuming it was great when the other person didn’t can derail a relationship, a process, a team or take you down a different path than you intended.

One of the most powerful ways to ensure you aren’t falling victim to communication mishaps is to make sure you are checking out your assumptions from your “great conversation” with those you are communicating with. Make sure you have similar understandings. Are you hearing what you think you are hearing?

Great communication doesn’t mean being perfect, but it does require work and persistence and checking it out…..consistently.

Halpern, D. F. (2012), Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (4th ed.). London: Psychology Press.
James, D., & Drakich, J. (1993). Understanding gender differences in amount of talk: A critical review of research. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Oxford studies in sociolinguistics. Gender and conversational interaction (pp. 281-312). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

McKay, M., Davis, M. and Fanning, P. (2009),

Mehrabian, A. (1971), Silent Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Rogers, C.R. and Farson, R.E., ‘Active Listening’ (1957). In Newman, R.G., Danziger, M. A. And Cohen, M. (Eds.) (1987), Communicating in business Today. Washington, D.C.: D.C. Heath and Company.



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