Is Your Communication Style Dictated By Your Gender
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A few years ago, I conducted research in the United States,
Europe and Canada to see how gender differences in communication were
displayed in the workplace. The first thing I found was that both men
and women identified the same sets of strengths and weaknesses in
themselves and each other.
Top Three Communication Strengths For Females:
1. Ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues.
2. Good listening skills.
3. Effective display of empathy.
Top Three Communication Weaknesses For Females:
1. Overly emotional.
2. Meandering – won’t get to the point.
3. Not authoritative.
Top Three Communication Strengths For Males:
1. Commanding physical presence.
2. Direct and to-the-point interactions.
3. Effective display of power.
Top Three Communication Weaknesses For Males:
1. Overly blunt and direct.
2. Insensitive to audience reactions.
3. Too confident in own opinion.
In the workplace, people are continuously -- and often
unconsciously -- assessing your communication style
two sets of qualities: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and
authority (power, credibility, status).
There is no “best” communication style for
all business interactions – and, certainly, there are many
exceptions to the generalities I’m presenting – but typically women
have the edge in collaborative environments where listening skills,
inclusive body language and empathy are more highly valued, and men are
thought to “take charge” more readily and viewed as more effective in
environments where decisiveness is critical. Men are also judged to be
better at monologue – women at dialogue.
Women display more “warm” body language cues. They are more
likely to focus on those who are speaking by orienting head and torso
to face participants. They lean forward, smile, synchronize their
movements with others, nod and tilt their heads (the universal signal
of listening, literally “giving someone your ear”).
Men send more “status” signals through an array of dominant
behaviors, such as side-to-side head shaking, anger and disgust
expressions. They stand tall or they sprawl, sitting with their legs
spread or widely crossed, their materials spread out on a conference
table, and their arms stretched out on the back of a chair.
In all cases, a communication style
turns into a weakness when overdone. A female’s collaborative approach
can come across submissive and a male’s directness can be taken as
callousness. Men come across as too aggressive when their expansive
postures infringe on other people’s personal space, when they have a
“death grip” handshake, and when they emphasize status cues to the
point where look haughty and uncaring. Women are viewed as weak or
passive when they are unnecessarily apologetic, when they smile
excessively or inappropriately, and when they discount their own ideas
Here are a few more examples comparing communication styles at work:
To a woman, good listening skills include making eye contact
and reacting visually to the speaker. To a man, listening can take
place with a minimum of eye contact and almost no nonverbal feedback.
(Women often cite a lack of eye contact as evidence that their male
boss “doesn’t value my input.”)
When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it
means she agrees or is listening or is encouraging another to continue
Men have a greater ability to hold their emotions in check and
to “keep a poker face” in business situations. Women are more
spontaneously emotionally expressive and have less ability in
controlling their emotions displays.
Because they better at accessing the full message (words and
body language), women are better at gauging reactions. This allows them
to evaluate whether or not they are being understood, and to adjust
accordingly. Female superiority in reading nonverbal signals is
sometimes thwarted by men’s ability to mask their facial expressions.
Women sound more emotional because they use approximately five
tones when speaking – and their voices rise under stress. Men only use
approximately three tones, and their deeper voices sound more
confident. But, because men don’t have a wide vocal range, they have a
tendency to become monotone.
Men expand into physical space, while women tend to condense
their bodies -- keeping their elbows to their sides, tightly crossing
their legs, stacking their materials in small, neat piles, and
contracting their bodies to take up as little space as possible. Men’s
expansive posture not only looks more confident, it helps create the
corresponding feeling of confidence. By contrast, when a woman’s
posture makes her look smaller, it also makes her feel less powerful.
Women too often have from a “good student” mentality,
believing that people in charge will notice their hard work and
positive results and promote them. Men are more aware that they need to
promote themselves (and their hard work and positive results) to get
As women make decisions, they tend to process and think of
options out loud. Men process internally and don’t speak until they
come up with a solution.
Men’s relative discomfort dealing with emotion leads them to
look for solutions. Women more readily understand that sometimes people
just need to be heard.
In business meetings, men talk more than women. One
perspective on this verbal disparity comes from former Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright, who – when asked what advice she had for
up-and-coming professional women – replied, “Learn to interrupt.”
Two men speaking will angle their bodies slightly, while two
women will stand in a more “squared up” position – a stance (when
exhibited by males) that most men perceive as confrontational.
Men who don’t know each other well tend to keep a greater
distance between them than women who have just met. This difference in
interpersonal distance as determined by gender is even true in online
communities that use avatars, where many of the unconscious “rules”
governing personal space in the physical world can be found in the
Men make direct accusations. Women tend to avoid confrontation
and prefer indirect accusations.
When considering how gender affects communication, keep in
mind that with any human interaction, rarely is anything exact. Still,
it is helpful to know when your personal “default” communication style
(whatever it may be) is an asset, and when it becomes a deterrent.
Comparing your strengths and weaknesses to these generalized gender
differences is one place to start. And enlarging your repertoire of
communication skills, so you can employ strategies that are most
effective under various circumstances, will definitely give you an
advantage. The most effective communicators, male and female, are
masters at balancing power and empathy signals, so that they come
across as both confident and caring.
About the Author
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is a global keynote speaker,
leadership presence coach and media expert on the impact of body
language on leadership effectiveness. Authors Google+
She’s a leadership contributor for Forbes.com
and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can
Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
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