Confident Communication and the Gender Divide

The Chairman finished speaking and sat down, arms crossed. He’d put forward an impassioned argument for the merger; a great deal, negotiated over many months, a capstone of his career. 

Sam stood slowly, hands planted firmly on the boardroom table, looked the Chairman squarely in the eyes and said “I am opposed. This deal tears the company apart, will lead to massive lay-offs and will ruin the brand and reputation we have built over the past 50 years.”

Is Sam wearing pants or a skirt?

It’s funny how the way we communicate can have an impact on how we are perceived, and how this perception differs depending on our gender. Did you assume Sam was a man? Would this direct and assertive approach seem surprising if Sam were a woman? 

In Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg talks about women’s tendency to stand back from conversations deferring, either consciously or subconsciously, to the men at the table. My guess is that most women who have read Sandberg’s book pay a little more attention to how they show up in meetings and are doing their best to lean in, as uncomfortable as it may be.

Sandberg’s call to action also shines a light on the other, more subtle ways that women discredit their leadership – or at least, the perception of them as leaders compared with stereotypical definitions of what leaders do and how they do it. We have a tendency to stand back, figuratively, through our communication style. 

Lately I have been watching myself and other women for these subtle ways that our communication influences how we are perceived and heard. Here are three things I have done and seen that serve to discredit what we have to say.

Qualifying our comments before we share them

When we start sentences with phrases like “This might be a bad idea but…” or ”You may not agree with me…”, we are setting the stage for our ideas to be discredited. We are sending a message that we are not confident about what we think or that we would understand if our ideas were judged as inferior. Skipping the preamble changes the tone, and the perception of what we say dramatically.

Sharing opinions phrased as questions

I’ve listened to myself say “Do you think we should pass on this deal?” when what I truly meant was “This is a bad deal, let’s pass.” And then I’m deflated when my male colleagues get kudos for having simply answered my question – which I never meant to be a question. 
Asking questions is a great way to encourage dialogue, to help others develop their ideas and to encourage problem solving. Phrasing what we say in the form of a question is safer than stating an opinion. It’s more collegial but it’s not a great strategy for getting your point across with confidence. 

Starting with feelings

Research supports the notion that women are more adept at reading nonverbal communication, which fuels one of the many strengths women bring to leadership - intuition, based on the cumulative effect of all the conscious and subconscious cues we are attuned to. The inclination to know by feeling is a powerful strength in relationship building, negotiating, as well as influencing and persuading others. However, when this competency creeps into our communication, it can serve to discredit or minimize what we have to say. 

Compare the two statements:
•    It feels like the markets are getting stronger and demand will drive prices up, let’s buy now.
•    The markets are getting stronger and demand will drive prices up, let’s buy now.

Starting with the facts and sticking to the facts can lend confidence to what you have to say – even if you know it through the combination of all the information that causes you to be feeling it!

Diversity of opinion and communication style strengthens organizations and human relationships. A workplace filled with unqualified opinions stated emphatically, uninformed by emotion and without openness to question would not be a good thing. But as you lean in at the table, pay closer attention to the words you are using, the way you are saying them and then the impact you are having. These little changes can have a big impact.

Previously published in The Chronicle Herald, April 17, 2015

Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Senior Associate
Anna Stuart is a Managing Partner with KBRS. She leads the firm's academic and executive search assignments. Anna’s consultative style and pragmatic approach has delivered exceptional results to a range of organizations and leaders across the region.