You’re in a meeting and you get a great idea. You speak up and share your thoughts but it kind of gets passed over. Later on in the same meeting, a colleague pipes up with your suggestion but this time is does get heard and action is taken to implement your idea.
If this does happen to you, chances are you are female and it’s likely that the colleague, who gets heard with your idea, is a man. He may or may not claim the idea to be his own and you may or may not remind the group that it was your idea in the first place. Whatever the follow up scenario, you’re likely to be left feeling unheard and wondering why you’re so ineffective in getting your ideas picked up. You may think it’s okay, at least the action is being taken, but in the long term, you run the risk of your value and contribution not being recognised or rewarded.
So what is going on here? Well what’s going on is the effect of the differences in men and women’s linguistic style.
Men and Women’s Linguistic Style
Linguistic style is your characteristic speaking pattern. It’s how direct or conversational you are, your rate of speech and length of pausing; it’s your tone of voice, your loudness. According to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington and author of 15 books, linguistic style is a set of culturally learned signals that communicate what we mean and how we interpret other people and evaluate one another. Women it seems, learn a different linguistic style from men, which places them at a disadvantage as it can make them seem less confident and self- assured that they really are.
Sheryl Sandberg’s current ‘ban bossy’ campaign touches on these differences between men and women. In childhood, girls focus on building rapport through conversations, they learn how to ‘save face’ for others and for many, they learn not to be too self-promoting as they believe they won’t be liked for it. In contrast, boys learn about asserting their status, about pushing for ‘top dog’ and ensuring they’re always in a ‘one up’ position. Even if you don’t agree this should be the case, think back on how assertive, self-promoting women have made you feel in the past and ask yourself, would you judge them differently if that linguistic style had come from a man?
So for a man, claiming “I do this’ is second nature; Women are far more likely to avoid using ‘I’ and go for a collaborative ‘we’ instead. Asking questions may be very helpful in building consensus and for many women, is a natural managerial style but for many, especially men, this can be perceived as putting themselves in a ‘one down’ situation and to be avoided at all costs. Say goes for saying sorry. Fortunately the growth in awareness and application of emotional intelligence in managerial and leadership development has helped us see how collaborative and coaching styles have so much more to offer to teams and individuals than old style, dictatorial approaches, but childhood socialisation has a long-lived impact.
Taking Turns to Speak
Another aspect of linguistic style concerns how long a pause we leave or need after someone has stopped talking and we take our turn to speak. Gender differences have a real bearing here, along with culture, where you live and so on. For some, the pause is hardly discernible and they’re straight in, offering their thoughts. For others, the pause needs to be longer, they need to consider what was just said and they’re checking that the speaker has, indeed, finished. You can imagine what happens when, in a group of fast talkers who jump in before someone has really finished, you have someone who needs a longer pause before they feel ready to contribute. They never see the window they need to speak and so don’t or are unable. Women have a tendency to fall into this category of needing longer pauses, so you can see how that could be perceived as a lack of confidence and self-assurance in a situation when everyone else is cutting in.
Being a Welsh comprehensive educated girl, when I went up to Oxford University to start my Geography degree, one of the biggest shocks I had in my tutorials was the ‘jumping in’ of my all-male (mainly privately educated) peers. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways and when I did, I was often interrupted and cut short. I found it very upsetting and remember feeling angry and powerless about how to change the situation. I did learn to be more assertive and adjusted my own pacing to match that around me, but it wasn’t my natural style. How this did me some discredit I learned much later when attending the retirement lunch for one of my old tutors. “Ah yes Rhian, I remember you. You were always so stroppy”. I obviously didn’t get the balance right between being authentic and flexing my style at that stage in my life!
So What To Do?
Nancy Klein in her book ‘A Time to Think’ calls for organisations to adopt principles that promote a proper ‘thinking environment’. Her ten components to doing that recognise the importance of listening to each other, of asking incisive questions that help people ‘speak and think’. Creating the right environment where all individuals can be encouraged to contribute is key, with awareness that team meetings tend to bring out the best in men, but not necessarily women.
As women, we should allow ourselves to use “I’ rather than ‘we’ on more occasions. Being aware of the linguistic culture of our organisations and teams may also help work out why we’re not being heard. Cultivating a flexible style of communication to reflect the preferences of who you are speaking with can be very useful. Facilitating and encouraging better listening is beneficial for both men and women.
You don’t need to shout, push in or get ‘stroppy’ to be heard. The impression and impact we create is not just about the words we use – it’s our tone of voice and our body language. Research has shown that 55% of our impact on others comes from our body language, the ‘dance’, 38% from our tone of voice, ‘the music’ and only 7% from our words. Develop insights on the impact you are having through self-reflection and ask for feedback from a trusted source. Being heard is a question of appreciating your ‘words, music and dance’ and how to get them working for you.