It’s one of the most common questions I’m asked during my talks: are the rules different for women when it comes to communication?
My answer is no. AND yes. It’s complicated, so I’ll explain.
But first, a story.
A Lesson from a Favorite Teacher
Among the many classes I took at Second City’s training center was a course in screenwriting. It was taught by an amazing woman named Mary Scruggs who, sadly, left the world way too early.
Mary was an award-winning playwright and worked for a time in LA, where she sold a script for “Designing Women” and developed a sitcom, so it was a real privilege to learn from her.
One day a young male student complained that he just couldn’t write dialogue for women. Which is ridiculous on its face, considering he was just learning to write dialogue PERIOD.
Mary was not easily perturbed. And having logged a couple of decades in the industry, she had no doubt encountered far worse in her dealings with men. So her response was pure Mary: kind and to the point.
With a generous smile, she answered, “Write the character as a man, and when you’re done, change the name to Linda.”
The Rules Are (Mostly) the Same
This story neatly captures my general philosophy: for 90 percent of communications, the rules for women and men are no different.
Both men and women need to:
- Listen to understand
- Read the room
- Carefully structure content
- Boil the content down to easily digestible messages
- Articulate clearly
- Deliver ideas with conviction
- Show a little emotion
- Express empathy
- Open up personally
- Tell stories to supplement data and facts
- Bring energy to a room
- Use gesture, expression and physicality to emphasize points
These are some of the core communications skills necessary for success — they only vary by gender around the margins. For instance, how to best express emotion or use your voice may differ somewhat, but these are tricky areas for both men and women.
Yet Women are Bombarded with Advice
I marvel at the avalanche of advice women are subjected to. Article after article after article demands that women adapt their communication style in order to get ahead in the workplace.
My problem with this is that too much of anything — whatever it is, and whatever your gender — is too much. If you end every other sentence with “okay?” then that’s obviously not good. But that doesn’t mean you should banish the word from your vocabulary.
And that’s what I see so often in these “how-to” articles: an absolutism that makes people so paranoid that they end up obsessing over relatively minor details when they should be focusing on the big picture.
Screw the Rules
For instance, we — all of us — are told to stop saying “uh” and “um.” But there’s actually evidence that the occasional so-called filler word enhances understanding instead of impeding it.
In fact, there are studies offering counterpoints to practically every “rule” dictated to women (and men). I love the headline for this one: “I’m Sorry, But I’m Not Going to Stop Apologizing.”
And there’s ample evidence suggesting that qualifying your statements with “I think” or “I feel” is the smart, reasonable thing to do.
Believe it or not, you can even find spirited defenses of the dreaded “uptalk” (clinically known as “high rising terminal“). Does that mean that you should end every sentence as if it’s a question? Of course not.
It’s an Unfair World
The point is, many of the communication “deficiencies” women are chided for are actually not in and of themselves weaknesses.
In fact, I’ve long felt that women in general (it’s important not to generalize on this of all issues!) are better communicators. Now there’s a lot of debate over whether that’s true and, if so, whether it’s stems from nurture or nature.
But it is clear that certain communication traits are more closely associated with women: listening, empathy, cooperation, relationship building, for instance. And as far as I’m concerned, those are precisely the qualities we need more of in the workplace — and the world at large.
But since boardrooms and C-suites are still dominated by men, it’s natural that workplace culture tends to reward those traits regarded as “masculine” — ambition, confrontation, independence. So it’s no wonder women feel pressured to conform their style to these standards.
And, of course, when they do, they’re often accused of being pushy, bossy, defensive, and worse. The fact of the matter is women are judged differently (and often more harshly) than men.
Nevertheless, Here Are a Few Tips
So what’s a woman to do? The last thing I want to do is mansplain, so I often seek the advice of successful women I know on how they navigate what is still “a man’s world.” From them I’ve gathered a few tips:
- Women have less latitude when it comes to the expression of emotion (which is a proven key to persuasion). Focusing on “safer” emotions, like passion, enthusiasm, (mild) frustration, carries less risk. And making sure to back up arguments with evidence is even more important. (As it should be for anybody!)
- Taking control of the immediate physical space with your body language and posture — as opposed to “folding in” as women are sometimes brought up to do — contributes to a stronger presence.
- Increasing the volume of your voice helps project authority. (And, of course, it ensures you’re heard.) This is true for anyone, but being soft spoken is more predominant among women.
- Some evidence suggests that lower pitched voices are perceived as more authoritative. But not so fast. Others argue that it’s not the voice itself, but gender bias that causes people to believe that.
And this is where we start going down a rabbit hole. Chasing after all these technical, often cosmetic issues obscures the bigger picture. Our time would be much better spent knowing our subject matter backward and forward, structuring arguments coherently, tuning in to what’s happening around us and all the other points I outlined above.
Take care of the big issues and the small, technical ones are less likely to make or break your reputation.
A Measure of Hope From the #MeToo Movement?
One last point: the #MeToo movement is causing huge disruptions in the workplace, as men who use their power to exploit women are rightly being called out and punished. This is causing men of all stripes to question their past actions and recalibrate their behaviors.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if this process ends up “feminizing” organizations by stigmatizing other traditionally male assertions of power like dominating a conversation, interrupting others, stating opinion as fact and resisting collaboration?
And qualities like empathy, openness, emotional honesty and cooperation were viewed as universal signs of strength, not weakness?
And where women could feel free to openly pursue their ambitions, to vigorously defend their arguments and to set their own course without being held to a double standard?
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world to raise our daughters and sons in?