Communicating in style

Lynn Wasthoff used to interact almost entirely with women at work. Then earlier this year she switched from a job in payroll sales to become a business-relationship manager at a cleaning company and had to interact with mostly male facility managers. The change was jarring. Ms. Westhoff says her confidence evaporated, and she often had trouble getting her points across to her new audience. “They weren’t responding, and I was freezing up,” she says. She altered her communication style with the help of a coach and now says she speaks with more authority.

“Men don’t want to hear all that fluff,” she says. “You have to know who your audience is, and you have to acknowledge that there are different ways of speaking to people.” There is a danger in being simplistic when discussing how men and women communicate in the workplace. Speech habits and body language vary from person to person regardless of gender. Some use styles that seem more characteristic of the opposite sex. But whether the result of early socialization or the chemistry in our brains, the differences are worth paying attention to in the workplace, career-development experts say.

A recent study highlights how important these differences are, particularly for women. The report — found 81 per cent of women said that “adopting a style with which male managers are comfortable” is an important or very important strategy to advance one’s career. (For comparison, 39 per cent of male respondents agreed.)

Many career-development experts suggest that since the organization and culture at most companies have been shaped over time by male executives, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to gender-based differences in communication styles. Communication styles rooted in childhood training or unconscious beliefs can be tough to change. A first step is becoming more aware of how you talk at work. If you feel that you aren’t being heard in meetings or have trouble persuading managers of your ability or accomplishments, get feedback from others.

Asking a colleague you trust to watch you during a meeting and provide analysis. Networking events are a good venue for trying out new behaviours. A performance review is also a good opportunity to seek feedback from a manager, but because stylistic differences can be subtle. Sometimes the boss won’t be able to articulate what the problem is. There are number of communication pitfalls that women especially can encounter in the workplace. Women sometimes use too many words to deliver serious messages, tend to downplay their contributions and sometimes undermine themselves by using qualifiers and other vague language. Other common pitfalls: phrasing statements as questions and using an upward inflection at the end of statements, which indicates doubt.

On the other hand, by using few words some men can appear to close off conversations too quickly, while others tend to overemphasize their individual performance when, in fact, a team is responsible for results. Many men and women need to do a better job of being direct in their communication while adding inclusive behavior at the end of their conversations.

Experts say sensitivity to communication styles should start even before you’re hired. Figure out the communication style at the level of the company, department and hiring manager and try to match it during job interviews and other interactions with the company.