Venus, Mars, and Workplace Communication
by Carol Kinsey Goman
We know that men have a different workplace communication style than women, but does “different” mean better?
There are obvious strengths and weaknesses in the communication styles of both genders. Based on a recent 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 The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. As you look at the findings below, notice how much of what we think of as communication style is determined not by the words someone is speaking, but what the person’s body is saying.
The Top Three Communication Strengths
1. Ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues
2. Good listening skills
3. Effective display of empathy
1. Physical bearing
2. Direct and to-the-point interactions
3. Body language signals of power
The Top Three Communication Weaknesses
1. Excessive emotionality
3. Failure to be authoritative
1. Excessive bluntness and directness
2. Insensitivity to audience reactions
3. Overconfidence in one’s own opinions
To make practical use of these findings, it’s important to consider them in the context of workplace applications and implications, and to remember that 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. Men are seen to take charge more readily and therefore are viewed as more effective in environments where decisiveness is critical.
It’s also important to remember that every strength turns into a weakness when overdone. For example, a woman’s collaborative style can come across as indecisive, and a man’s directness can be taken as callousness or disregard for other opinions.
Clues for Gleaning Meaning
Here are 18 Venus and Mars differences to keep in mind as you interact with your colleagues and customers.
* 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 a 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 and taller, and because we typically equate mass with power, they convey an instant sense of presence. Females can compensate by standing straight, broadening their stance, and even putting their hands on their hips to take up more physical space.
* Women sound more emotional because they use approximately five tones when speaking, and their voices rise under stress. Men not only have a deeper vocal range; they use only 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 man thinks that the woman’s verbal brainstorming means that she’s looking for approval rather than just thinking aloud.
* Men’s discomfort in dealing with emotion leads them to believe that there needs to be a solution; they may fail to understand that sometimes people just need to be heard.
* Because they access the full message (both words and body language), women are better at watching and listening for reactions. This allows them to see whether 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 secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who, 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 indirect approaches (Why didn’t you do it?)
* Women are viewed as less professional when they resort to girlish behaviors (twirling hair, playing with jewelry, 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 themselves than women who have just met. This difference in interpersonal distance as determined by gender is even true in Web 2.0’s online communities, where many of the unconscious “rules” that govern personal space in the physical world can also be discerned.
* 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.
Whichever you are—Venus or Mars—the trick is to know when your communication style can promote success, and when it is likely to be 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 is an executive coach and management consultant who delivers keynote speeches around the world on topics such as “The Nonverbal Advantage in Sales,” “The Silent Language of Leadership,” and “Body Language for Women Who Mean Business.” The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work is her latest book. She can be reached at 510/526-1727; CGoman@CKG.com; and NonverbalAdvantage.com.