“Didn’t I just say that?!” How many women have experienced this scenario? You are in a meeting where you raise an idea, make a key point or propose a solution, and nothing comes of it. Yet soon after, a colleague – usually male – makes the same comment and a full conversation ensues. No one acknowledges or even seems to recall that you just said the same thing. What just happened?
We all know that men and women communicate differently. Research has shown that in general terms, men communicate to establish status, fix a problem or voice an opinion. Whereas women communicate to establish relationships or a connection, or to reach a consensus. As a result, women tend to communicate in a way that aspires for the listener to share their experience and understand their point of view. Men tend to focus solely on the point of view, stating just the facts. So if a woman starts making her point by building up to it, she might get tuned out before she gets to the point.
Here’s a personal example: My sister called me on a Saturday morning and asked how it was going. I responded, “You wouldn’t believe the night we had last evening. I flew back to town yesterday and was exhausted, but I had to attend a fundraising dinner. When I arrived home from the dinner, I opened the door to the house from the garage and stepped in. Splash! Splash? Splash!! I flipped on the lights to discover the family room was flooded...” I went on to describe finding the source of the water, running to the neighbor’s for help and mopping water off the hardwood floors until the wee hours of the morning. “So much for catching up on sleep,” I concluded about ten minutes later.
Later that day, my husband spoke to his brother and said, “What a mess we had last night. The hose popped off the refrigerator flooding the house, and now we have to replace the hardwood floors.” In two sentences, less than a minute, he had covered the issue and the solution. I wanted my sister to feel what I felt, walk in my shoes and empathize so it took me longer to tell the story. My husband didn’t care about that.
In male dominated industries, the business style of communications is male oriented. It’s important to learn to effectively communicate in this domain until women reach parity and it evolves. I learned this lesson from a boss at IBM. I was often his replacement when he needed to be in two places at once. If he had meeting conflicts, he would have me attend the conflicting meeting and leave him a voicemail following the meeting with highlights. After my first week of doing this, he gave me feedback. “Shellye, I get a lot of voicemails a day, try to be more succinct.” I took it to heart. The next meeting voicemail took me 20 minutes to record. I kept recording, reviewing and then re-recording to make it more and more net. During the next checkpoint, my boss praised the voicemails. I took this to heart and started using the same tactic in meetings. Make my point as succinct as possible first and then explain the rationale to support it versus building up to the point, or thinking out loud in a meandering way. This helped, but even more was needed.
I learned to speak up and remind people of my original comments. For example, if my comment is passed over and later someone else in the meeting makes the same point, I speak up, “Derrick, I’m glad you support the suggestion I made earlier…” Always be gracious when making these kinds of statements. Sarcasm doesn’t work, and often backfires.
Sometimes you have the right idea, suggestion or point, but can’t get the air time. Studies show men are more adept and comfortable interrupting and talking over others. Many women have been cultured not to be rude, and interrupting and talking when someone else is talking are both rude. It’s not uncommon for there not to be a natural break during male dominated conversations, especially when the topics are exciting or heated. So our points are never heard. But even if there is no break there is a rhythm. Listen carefully and you can tell when someone is winding up their point, you have to jump in and start talking over their last words. I call this the “Double Dutch” strategy. As a kid, jumping rope was ok, but jumping Double Dutch, when two people are swinging jump ropes in the opposite direction at the same time, was challenging and fun. The swinging ropes didn’t stop to let you in. You had to internalize the rhythm of the swinging ropes and jump in just at the point both ropes were the farthest apart. Interjecting yourself into a conversation with no breaks requires the same kind of strategy.
Be careful of using words or intonation that undermine your credibility when speaking. Don’t preface your comments with “I feel.” Decisions aren’t made based on feelings. “I believe” is much stronger. Be careful not to make your statement in the form of a question. Doing so says you are unsure. You may indeed be unsure, but make the point firmly and let the debate ensue.
Making yourself consistently heard takes strategy and practice. I’ve shared a couple of my approaches. Develop strategies that work for you and force yourself to use them until they become a habit.
This article was originally published in Forbes a Committee of 200 Contributor.
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