Ellen was near tears when she called for help. She described that she had recently landed her “dream job” at a large marketing firm. From day one, however, the friction between her and a co-worker, Mike, was sapping all the joy out of her new position. Although they were supposed to collaborate on projects, Ellen told us that this was nearly impossible because Mike was dismissive of her ideas and claimed credit for campaigns that were developed collaboratively. The breaking point came when Mike openly shot down Ellen’s ideas on a big project and continually undermined her during team meetings.
“I was so upset that I went straight to Mike and asked to speak with him privately. I explained how I felt but I also empathized with what he might be feeling. I took the time to try and show him the big picture of how things might be different for both of us at work if we were able to cooperate more. I feel so angry at how he acts and I’m worried that our boss can’t see through his competitive behavior.”
Any guesses about whether Ellen’s conversation with Mike resolved or enflamed their conflict? Yup! Bigger problems ahead for Ellen if she continues to make these communication mistakes with Mike and her other male co-workers and supervisees. We’ve all heard about how different “Mars” and “Venus” are at home, and we face similar challenges at work if we want successful and productive communication between the sexes. But don’t despair… with a little education and a few simple communication tools under your belt you’ll be ready to climb all the way to the top of that corporate ladder.
General Communication Rules
People are as different as fingerprints and many of us are loathe to generalize. However, some generalizations are both appropriate and necessary. Here is a very broad overview of communication styles in men vs. women:
- Men talk to give information or report; women talk to collect information or gain rapport.
- Men talk about things (business, sports, food); women talk about people.
- Men focus on facts, reason and logic; women focus on feelings, senses, and meaning.
- Men thrive on competing and achieving; women thrive on harmony and relating.
- Men “know” by analyzing and figuring out; women “know” by intuiting.
- Men are more assertive; women are more cooperative.
- Men seek intellectual understanding; women are able to empathize.
- Men are focused, specific, logical; women are wholistic, organic and “wide-angle.”
- Men are comfortable with order, rules and structure; women with fluidity.
- Men want to think; women want to feel.
Now, although many of these generalizations may not apply to you in particular, it’s important to be aware of how differently most men and women communicate at work. Certainly the same differences apply outside of the office as well, but they are often more pronounced at work where women are asked to fit into what is often a male-dominated environment and where there is typically less tolerance for the “female” communication styles listed above.
Communicating With Your Male Co-workers
Remember Ellen? After reading the above list of general male and female communication styles, is it easier to pick out her mistakes? Here is a list of tips for communicating with your male co-workers since no one wants this kind of workplace drama!
1. Don’t communicate when you are upset. When your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, you feel flushed and/or your ears are ringing, productive communication is nearly impossible. Take some deep breaths, slowly count to ten, close your eyes and visualize a peaceful scene in order to calm down before approaching your co-worker. It may be advisable to wait an hour, an afternoon, or a day in order to ensure that your communication with your male colleague is calm, clear, and appropriate for your environment.
2. Get to the point. Too much extraneous detail will not make your male co-workers want to be on your team and you are likely to lose their attention along the way.
3. Facts not feelings. Remember men focus on facts and -- especially at work -- find feelings irrelevant to the conversation. Save the “I feel…” descriptions for your girlfriends.
4. Be careful of gossip. Not only are your male co-workers less likely to be interested in gossip, but it can be dangerous and inappropriate at the workplace regardless of gender. Trying to engage a male co-worker in the latest office rumor as a way to “connect” may unwittingly have the opposite effect.
5. Instrumental vs. expressive. Your male colleagues are likely to use communication to create solutions or to fix problems, rather than to express feelings or thoughts. Remember this when you see their eyes glaze over as you air your thoughts and feelings on a subject. Grab – and keep – their attention by focusing your communication on action, problem-solving, and solutions.
6. Listen with your intellect not your emotions. Regardless of what is being said to you, it is crucial in a workplace setting to put aside your emotional responses, and to respond from an objective and rational, rather than an emotional and reactionary, position. (You may need to re-read and apply rule #1 here.)
7. Do not engage in power struggles. Remember the phrase “Progress, not Victory” when faced with a power struggle. Your goal is not to win, but to move the discussion toward a resolution that benefits the company, department, or team. By remaining solution-focused you will likely be able to disengage your co-worker from his competitive corner.
Communicating With the Men That You Supervise
1. Forward communication. By this we mean focusing the conversation on future actions and solutions rather than rehashing past mistakes.
2. Instructions vs. suggestions. It is important that women supervisors and managers clearly communicate when they are issuing an instruction. Avoid ambiguous language that could be interpreted as a “suggestion” by your supervisee.
3. Precise communication. Don’t leave any room for confusion or misinterpretation. Be very specific about the how, what, where, and when.
4. Action-oriented conversations. Focus on actions rather than on feelings, people or extraneous details.
5. Encourage the asking of questions. Men are less likely to ask questions, which means it may be your job to encourage your male supervisee to ask any questions necessary. A simple, “Any questions about this?” will do.
6. Cooperation vs. competition. Because of their competitive nature, it is important in your role as a supervisor to recognize, acknowledge and praise a job well done. We recommend that strong supervisors always encourage cooperation; however, with the typically male focus on achievement, attention to success is critical.
7. Understanding resistance. When confronted with the resistance of a male employee, it is important to gain an understanding of where he is coming from. Yes, it may be that he feels threatened, but it’s also likely that as an analytical creature, he may need to look up the facts and check out the data. Rather than push him to agree on the spot, encourage him to do his own research so that you can gain his support rather than his reluctant follow through (remember: while resistance is natural and normal, as the boss you get to give the instructions at the end of the day).
So does all this mean that women need to make all the effort to change in order to be heard and understood in the workplace? If both men and women share the same office space and contribute equally, why is it women are the only ones learning the new communication tools? We have a couple of responses to this. First, it largely depends on the industry you’re in or the type of work you do. If you work on the Wall Street trading floor in New York, you will likely have to make 100 percent effort to fit into this world. Our guess is that talking about feelings and explaining that you bought 10,000 shares of stock for your client based on intuition without looking at the numbers or data will not earn you a promotion. However, if you work for a nonprofit organization or a design house, it's much more likely that men will be flexible about different styles of communication. Second, women (because of our natural tendency to empathize and cooperate) are far more open to acknowledging these different styles and learning to build the bridge. If you work in an environment that allows for even some non-testosterone driven conversation, then your new communication tools will hopefully open the doors for both sexes to learn these skills and increase their communication flexibility. And finally, like it or not, we women do have things to learn, because there are some female communication traits that are simply not appropriate or productive at work!
About the Authors
Victoria Simon, Ph.D., and Holly Pedersen, Ph.D., are CEO and President (respectively) of Talk Works, a communication and conflict-resolution training company located at 468 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90201. For more information call: 310.860.5191, or visit www.OurTalkWorks.com.