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Carol Kinsey GomanWe know that men have a different workplace communication style than women – but does “different” mean better?

Well, yes.

And no.

There are obvious strengths and weaknesses in the communication styles of both genders. Based on research project in which I collected responses from 387 employees and managers in the United States, Canada and Europe, I found that both sexes identified the same set of strengths and weaknesses in themselves and each other.

On that, at least, we all agree.

This study reinforces other research I conducted while writing my book The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. As you look at the findings below, notice how much of what people call “communication style” is determined not by the words someone is speaking, but what their body is saying …

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. Physical presence.
2. Direct and to-the-point interactions.
3. Body language signals of power.

Top three communication weaknesses for males:
1. Overly blunt and direct.
2. Insensitive to audience reactions.
3. Too confident in own opinion.

To best understand these findings, however, it’s important to consider them in the context of workplace applications and implications:

For example, there is no “best” communication style for all workplace interactions. Women have the edge in collaborative environments (where listening skills, inclusive body language, and empathy are more highly valued), and men are seen to “take charge” more readily (and viewed as more effective in environments where decisiveness is critical).

In all cases, a strength turns into a weakness when overdone. (A female’s collaborative style can come across as indecisive and a male’s directness can be taken as callousness or disregard for other opinions.)

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.”)

Men are more comfortable when approached from the side. Women prefer approaches from the front. Likewise, two men speaking will angle their bodies slightly, while two women will stand in a more “squared up” position – a stance that most men perceive as confrontational.

When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she is listening.

Female superiority in reading nonverbal signals during business meetings allows women to accurately assess coalitions and alliances just by tracking who is making eye contact with whom at certain critical points.

Men are judged to be better at monologue – women at dialogue.

A man’s ability to hold his emotions in check and to “keep a poker face” is viewed as an advantage in business situations. A woman’s tendency to show her feelings more outwardly in gestures and facial expressions is perceived as a weakness.

When a woman can’t read the person she’s talking to, it makes her anxious. Men’s ability to mask their facial expressions causes uneasiness in women, who often perceive this as negative feedback.

Men are larger, taller and, because we typically equate mass with power, they gain an instant sense of “presence.” Females can compensate by standing straight, broadening their stance, and even putting their hands on their hips in order to take up more physical space.

Women sound more emotional because they use approximately five tones when speaking – and their voices rise under stress. Not only do men have a deeper vocal range, they only use approximately three tones.

Male body language is more likely to emphasize stature, composure, and confidence. Men also send signals of indifference, disagreement or smugness far more often than women do.

As women make decisions, they tend to process and think of options out loud. Men process internally until they come up with a solution. This can lead to problems if a male thinks that the female’s verbal brainstorming means that she’s looking for approval rather than just thinking aloud.

Men’s discomfort dealing with emotion leads them to believe that there needs to be a solution, rather than understanding that sometimes people just need to be heard.

Because they access the full message (words and body language), women are better at watching and listening for reactions. This allows them to ensure that they are being understood, and adjust accordingly.

In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, wh0 – when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women – replied, “Learn to interrupt.”

Men make direct accusations (You didn’t do it!) while women use an indirect method (Why didn’t you do it?)

Women are viewed as less professional when they resort to girlish behaviours (twirling hair, playing with jewellery, etc.) or flirtatious body language (tossing hair back, crossing and uncrossing legs, etc.).

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 where many of the unconscious “rules” that govern personal space in the physical world can be found in the virtual world.

Women are viewed as lacking authority when they try to avoid confrontation and conflict, when they are unnecessarily apologetic, when they are too focused on pleasing others, when they smile excessively or inappropriately, and when they discount their own ideas and achievements.

So Venus or Mars – whichever you are – the trick is to know when your communication style is an aid to success. 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, definitely gives you an advantage.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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