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PWCC Community Blog: Can’t We All Just Learn to Communicate?

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 2, 2017

PWCC Community Blog:  Can’t We All Just Learn to Communicate?


Years ago, when running for a state-level office, I attended a candidate communications training session. Based on my background in communications, I thought I was in for training that wouldn’t offer anything novel but would, instead, merely reinforce everything I already knew.


During the session I was asked to speak to the camera from a variety of vantage points: sitting behind a desk, poised behind a lectern, and standing alone.


A recurring criticism I received was that I nodded my head too often while listening. While I thought this practice established me as an empathetic listener, the trainers told me that my habit signaled weakness and a lack of authority, indicating someone who would agree with anyone over anything.


And this feedback both surprised and troubled me because it seemed to expose the dilemma for women communicators: can we have a communications style that is strong and authoritative, empathetic and collaborative but not viewed as weak and emotional?


But maybe the question is even more basic: are there gender differences in workplace communications and should we do anything about them?


In her research paper How Men and Women Differ: Gender Differences in Communication Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles, Karima Merchant reviewed studies of gender differences in workplace communications styles.  Early research she surveyed concluded that women strive for empathy while men strive for authority.


The biggest difference between men and women and their style of communication

boils down to the fact that men and women view the purpose of conversations differently.


Academic research on psychological gender differences has shown that while women use communication as a tool to enhance social connections and create relationships, men use language to exert dominance and achieve tangible outcomes (Leaper, 1991; Maltz & Borker, 1982; Wood, 1996; Mason, 1994). Women are, overall, more expressive, tentative, and polite in conversation, while men are more assertive, and power-hungry              

 (Basow & Rubenfield, 2003).


Researchers have also routinely concluded that the female style of empathetic, collaborative speech puts them at a disadvantage in many workplace situations as it may suggest tentativeness rather than confidence.


Sadly, more recent research reaches the same conclusions.


Carol Kinsey Goman  studied gender differences in communications styles across Europe, Central America, and the United States and offered a summary of her findings in Is Your Communication Style Dictated By Your Gender?  Goman concludes that “In the workplace, people are continuously -- and often unconsciously -- assessing your communication style for two sets of qualities: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status).”  Women communicators are assessed as being intuitive, empathetic, and audience-centric; men communicators are seen to be authoritative, direct, and focused.  Of course, there are negatives aspects to both sets of styles: women are often judged to be too emotional and meandering when communicating and men are thought to be too overconfident and insensitive.


So what to make of all this?


It seems to me that the focus should be on what makes a good communicator and how these traits can be applied to whomever needs to convey information, ideas, or calls for action in a variety of settings to a variety of audiences, regardless of gender.


First, a good communicator knows the audience: to inform or persuade people, you have to know who they are, what they know, and what they believe.  This knowledge helps you gauge the language to use, the right amount of background information to provide, and the pace at which you speak. It is vital that a communicator first assesses an audience for its needs and beliefs.


Second, a good communicator knows what information she wants to provide and organizes everything that’s presented around this information.  Having a sharp focus helps you know what information belongs and what does not, regardless of how interesting it may be.  A good communicator also organizes information around this focus, using words like “first,” “next,” and “another” to segment the material into digestible “chunks” of information.


Lastly, a good communicator speaks or writes to connect with the audience and should seek to appear empathetic, collaborative, and supportive.  Regardless of the weight of the information, maybe especially in situations where the information being conveyed is difficult to “hear” or agree with, a trusted communicator is listened to and followed.


Ultimately, both “female” and “male” communications styles have aspects that can be combined to form a powerful style for anyone who wishes to inform and persuade.


Just don’t nod your head in agreement.


-- Written by Carol Jambor-Smith, Founder and Principal of Jambor-Smith Communications, a consulting firm that develops and executes communications strategy that engages, changes, and inspires. She can be reached at

Professional Women's Club of Chicago, PWCC is a Chicago based networking organization that provides networking connections that support, enrich and inspire women to advance professionally and personally. Members come from public and private sectors, multi-billion dollar corporations, mid-size and small businesses, as well as, non-profit organizations. Membership is open to women from all industries in all stages of their careers who want to develop a strong lifelong network. Learn more about membership and upcoming activities

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