Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Women and Men

One of my clients told me about a previous coaching experience she had in her career. The (male) executive coach sat down in the conference room and said to her: "You've been assigned to me because I'm the coach who understands women".

Wow! My first reaction to that outrageous statement was: "how can any man be that arrogant or that stupid?" I've been married for 25 years and still don't understand women. I share that ignorance with 3.5 billion other men on the planet Earth.

What I do know is when it comes to communication, most people tend to focus on what is different about men and women. After coaching 3000 people in the business world (roughly 65% men and 35% women), I'd like to take another approach. Let's focus on a few things we have in common as communicators:

We talk too fast. Try to pause after big points; punch key words; breathe between sentences and vary your pace - brisk for matter-of-fact information and deliberate for critical information.

We listen too fast. Try to listen quietly with less head nodding; use fewer "right, right, rights or sure, sure, sures"; take a silent breath before you respond and occasionally build your point off what the other person said to build a bridge between their point and yours.

We slump in our seats. Try to sit up toward the front of your chair; take up more real estate at the table by freeing up your elbows and aim for an upright neutral posture while speaking.

We lean too much. Try to keep a level head and when making a key point get your hands and arms off the table or chair to gesture with purpose.

We smile at the wrong times. Try to keep an appropriate "mask for the moment". You don't have to look like a prison guard, but avoid smiling while talking about serious things. It diminshes your gravitas.

We breathe weakly. Try to breathe from the belly up, not the neck up. Lie down on the floor at home, put a big heavy book on your stomach and breathe in and out. You will discover your diapraghm - the "bellows in your belly" that powers your voice.

We don't cut to the chase. Try flipping your message on it's head and lead with your conclusion. Your audience will love you for it. It you meander your way to the point, your audience will want to strangle you.

There are many other things we share as female and male communicators, but I'll stop here. If we focus only on gender-specific weaknesses, we can fall into the trap of thinking of only gender-specific strengths. We all face the same hurdles and demons as communicators. As Indira Gandhi once said:

"My theory is that men are no more liberated than women."

When it comes to communicating, she was absolutely right!

P.S. If you want to learn from someone who really knows something about gender linguistics, read Deborah Tannen's work.

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