Communication is vital when you’re looking to build powerful and healthy relationships at the office, especially considering these connections help create opportunities for success. In her book, In a Different Voice, Harvard Psychologist Carol Gillian describes men and women as two different subcultures who are essentially speaking a different language. Yes, both may be speaking in English, for example, but words and body language are being interpreted in vastly different ways.
Even the reasons to initiate communication can vary greatly between men and women. This may lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and tension in the workplace.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, being able to communicate effectively with both genders provides a great advantage because you can get your ideas across with greater efficiency, you’re more adaptable in meetings and presentations, and you can develop a deeper understanding with the person you’re listening to.
If you’re a man who keeps trying to figure out where you’re going wrong when communicating with your female cohorts, here are ways you can communicate more effectively.
Understanding Why Communication Is Initiated
We may be articulating in the same language, but the purpose of communication may be vastly different for men and women. Men tend to communicate with a clear purpose or goal in mind, while women often communicate to share and connect. Listening is an action-oriented activity for most men.
As a man, you might walk over to your coworker “Meghan” to ask her a few specific questions about a joint project. Your purpose is to gather the information you need to move forward with the portion of work you are responsible for that overlaps with her part of the project. For example, if she expects to meet the upcoming deadline or if she will need more time.
However, when “Meghan” initiates a conversation with you about the same project, she may not have a clear objective or question that needs to be answered. She may be exploring and brainstorming different thoughts related to the project. She is engaging with you to build a stronger connection and working relationship.
Where things go awry is when you assume what “Meghan” is trying to communicate. For example, if you try to solve the problem you perceive her to be having with the project without her actually asking you for your help, you may be perceiving a problem that is not there. “Meghan” may be simply sharing her experience and processing her thoughts out loud. She might not be looking for anything from you, other than someone to listen.
This is not to say that “Meghan” isn’t goal-oriented, just that she is open to discussing the project without a measurable objective.
Does this mean there is no value in her project-related communication? Not in the least. Keep your mind and ears open and you may find a casual exchange leads to inspired and innovative new avenues.
Different Listening Skills
Men and women listen differently during a conversation. This can lead to team breakdown and the loss of useful and productive ideas. Women look at the speaker and respond by nodding as a sign of listening and acknowledging engagement. On the other hand, men often listen to speakers while looking at different parts of the room, leaning back in their chairs, and showing minimal facial expressions.
Men may appear disengaged or unresponsive, which can easily be misunderstood as lack of interest to a woman when she is speaking. When a man nods his head, it is often a sign of agreement, as opposed to acknowledging that he is listening.
The keys to becoming a better listener are quite simple. First, make an effort to show that you’re engaged in the conversations you’re having. Some signs that you’re paying attention and interested in what the other person is saying are things like nodding, asking appropriate questions, maintaining eye contact with a smile, and repeating back their key points to ensure you fully understand. If time is tight and you sincerely don’t have time to listen, make yourself available for a quick answer and schedule a time for a more in-depth exchange.
Does the thought of conflict make you cringe? When you don’t handle conflict correctly and in a professional environment, it can cause a loss in efficiency— negatively impacting the company’s bottom line. Conflicts often lead to HR issues that take up valuable labor hours and morale plummets.
Instead of avoiding conflict, it’s time to develop some serious conflict resolution skills so that you can work through disputes faster and communicate from a stronger foundation.
- First, it’s helpful to develop your emotional intelligence. For example, it is important to women that you acknowledge the emotion behind the conflict. You’ve probably heard a time or two that women are too emotional at work, but more often than not, the emotions women are feeling are exaggerated by the lack of acknowledgment that there is a specific emotion behind the conflict. Try starting the conversation with “I understand that you are feeling….” or “I appreciate ….” to help diffuse the emotion and show empathy.
- Let go of your ego. Not every conflict is a competition to be won or lost. Everyone has a different style when it comes to conflict resolution, and each communication style gives you an opportunity to learn how to strengthen your communication skills, as well as grow your relationship with the other person. Regardless of hierarchy or tenure, pulling rank is not the way to resolve a conflict.
- Be careful when turning to humor or teasing women during a conflict, as this can be interpreted by the woman as being attacked or not taken seriously. Save your humor for less fraught circumstances and try to have more meaningful exchanges with women.
Foster open lines of communication that celebrate the sharing of differing opinions, opposed to viewing all differences as conflict. When men and women of all levels and tenure are empowered to openly and honestly share their insights, ideas, and concerns, it is a win for the company. If you want to see this in action watch a few episodes of Undercover Boss.
Open communication leads to innovation-driving conversations, and eases tension and hurt feelings. This shift will be uncomfortable for both the men and women on your team, so it is something you will need to work through together.
When in doubt, take a pause and consider if your initial response to what is being communicated is the only option. Then listen with patience, emotional intelligence, and the intention to learn something new.