Men and women just don’t speak the same language in business.
“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope,” write Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton business school professor Adam Grant in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. “Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.”
A recent study by a Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll found that male executives received 10% higher ratings of competence from their peers when they spoke more, while female executives who spoke up received 14% lower ratings. If you’ve ever been talked over or dismissed by a male colleague, you understand all too well the worry that speaking up will cause you to be disliked.
As a result of this fear and disparity, women tend to listen more, seek consensus, and give approval, while men often speak more forcefully. We may begin dismissing what we wanted to say and apologize for or soften our ideas. In the business world such conversational behaviors can limit our career advancement, not to mention make us feel bad.
But you can overcome those obstacles and hold your own by adjusting your speaking style–keep your strengths as a female, but learn from the world of men. And since women often find themselves speaking to a largely male audience, it’s worth the effort.
Here are five ways to break into the boys’ club:
Here’s the paradox: The more you seek approval, the less likely you are to get it. Waiting for affirmations that do not come can lead you to say things that undermine your message, such as “Is this making any sense?” or “I could be wrong.”
Women also often lift their voices at the end of sentences, as though asking for approval from their audience. You’ll find you get the most buy-in when you state your convictions clearly and forcefully and win listeners over by the strength of your case–not when you’re pleading for positive reinforcement.
When presenting, get right to your point, and sell it hard. Be polite, but keep your opening pleasantries to a minimum. The audience will appreciate your confidence and your resolve not to waste their time. Tell them what you believe and why you believe it. When I’m coaching executives I find men get to the point more quickly. They know the value of directness for getting the attention of their listeners and persuading them.
Make your point with strong, plain words and straightforward declaratory sentences. Avoid weak modifiers like “probably,” “basically,” “roughly,” and “sort of.”
Don’t ask questions when you know the answers or begin your points with caveats like, “I could be wrong about this . . .”
Finally, don’t diminish your authority at the end of your sentences. For instance, ending a thought with “et cetera” or “and that kind of thing” weakens your argument. Finish each sentence with conviction, not with a vague turn of phrase. Simple sentences like “I believe that this is the best approach because. . .” are usually the best.
Too often women feel hurt or angry when our ideas don’t get the response we’d hoped for. Fewer men react that way. They’ll differ with each other, sometimes sharply, but they’ll leave the room laughing and discussing their next golf game.
Take a leaf from their playbook. If someone seeks to dismiss your idea, respond, but without anger or aggression. Be a strong defender of your ideas, but know that colleagues sometimes disagree. Don’t wrap your emotions into every point you make. Be ready to laugh, concede a point, or modify your proposal if that seems appropriate as you listen to others.
Persuading others often requires more than the one initial statement. If you’re challenged, listen carefully to the question or critique and then show why your proposal still makes sense. Your listeners will appreciate your strength and convictions.
If you’re interrupted, don’t give way. Say, “I would like to finish,” or “I’ll speak to that point when I’m done.”
If someone else takes your idea and presents it as their own, you might say, “That point sounds familiar. And I’m happy to see you restating what I presented just a few minutes earlier.” If someone challenges your idea, don’t give way because you fear you’re offending someone.