Volume 20, Number 1
Jan/Feb 2003


By Corinne Cooper

Women professionals are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as indistinguishable from our male colleagues. Yet research on communication skills indicates that there are distinct differences in the ways women, as a group, communicate. Once you think about it, this isn't surprising. Researchers such as Deborah Tannen have been pointing out subtle, gender-based variations for years.
The key to professional success for every professional is understanding your individual communication style. As you increase awareness of your communication capability, you can refine your skills in this important area. Here is a list of six communication issues that research suggests may be of particular importance to women:

A survey of 1,000 men and women in business confirmed that voice is an important professional tool. Up to 37 percent of face-to-face first impressions are based upon voice. About 80 percent of first impressions over the telephone are based upon voice.
The research also discloses important distinctions between men and women. Women who speak quickly are considered either nervous or enthusiastic, while fast-talking men are perceived as unscrupulous. People with weak voices are generally considered timid. High voices are unpleasant, as are loud and grating female voices (think Fran Dresher).
Goal: Practice deepening your voice to a comfortable lower range. Relax your vocal chords and speak with less force, which will naturally deepen your voice. To counteract the impression of timidity, project from the diaphragm instead of the vocal chords. Speak more slowly, but enunciate and vary volume for interest and emphasis.

Rising Inflection
This is the "Valley Girl" voice, where every sentence sounds like a question. Although anyone can fall into this pattern, it's most prevalent among young women. A rising inflection gives statements a tone of uncertainty and can be perceived as an implicit request for approval. This undercuts the authority of the speaker and reduces the power of the content.
Goal: Listen to a tape of your voice to see whether you use rising inflections. If so, begin to break the habit by consciously varying your voice tone and bringing it down at the end of a sentence. Learn to do this without lowering your volume, or the end of the sentence will be inaudible.

Paralanguage is the annoying habit of sprinkling "like," "uh," or "y'know" like salt throughout your conversation. It's a virus, multiplying and spreading from person to person. Any word, with constant repetition, can become para- language-"basically" recently started showing up in this role. Paralanguage undercuts the impact of your ideas because it distracts, like static, from the substance of your conversation. Al-though this habit is widespread among men and women, it may have a disproportionately negative impact on women's professional communication because women speakers start at a slight disadvantage with many audiences.
Goal: Because using paralanguage is largely an unconscious habit, you may be unaware how often you use these phrases. Taping your conversation will help increase your awareness. Choose your words consciously in both formal presentations and informal conversation. And ask your friends to help you break the habit.

Undermining Language
Undermining language is the use of phrases such as "I don't know if this is right" or "This is just my opinion." Again, this is primarily a problem among women. Classroom teachers are constantly bombarded with qualifying phrases like these from young female students.
Undermining language isn't always a problem: Sometimes it's appropriate to qualify in this way, but constant use will undermine your authority. Indiscriminate use of the phrases "I think" and "I feel" can have the same effect. "We can succeed" projects a very different attitude from "I think we can succeed." This is true in both spoken and written communication.
Goal: Don't let undermining language become a habit; make sure that you use these phrases intentionally. Why should other people believe in your ideas when you seem so unconvinced yourself?

Interrupting is like merging in freeway traffic-the more firmly you move, the more likely you are to succeed. If you hesitate, you're likely to be run off the road. Deborah Tannen's research shows that men interrupt more than women, although women's interruptions are noticed more-by both men and women. Women also are generally less successful at interrupting. If you interrupt with a soft or tentative voice, the other speaker may not give way.
Goal: Women have to be careful about interrupting. Be conscious of how often you interrupt other speakers. In order not to cause offense, try acknowledging that you're interrupting: "I know you're not finished, but I wanted to let you know that...." When you choose to interrupt, do so emphatically to ensure your interjection will be heard.

Being Heard
When women offer ideas in a meeting, we may not be heard. It's quite common for a good idea introduced tentatively by a speaker to be ignored, yet another speaker who then repeats it more forcefully will get credit for it. (A recent UPS commercial parodies this phenomenon.)
Goal: Use a confident tone of voice and firm hand gestures to ensure your idea is heard. If your comment isn't acknowledged, try bringing it up again in a slightly different form. One way to guarantee you get credit for your ideas is to prepare a short written memo outlining your proposal and hand it out to the group. This also illustrates preparation and leadership skills. To undercut any resentment that this assertiveness might generate (for example, if another person is leading the discussion), try using undermining language while you pass the memo around.
Increasing the impact of your professional communication is primarily a matter of becoming aware of the issues raised here. But remember that communication is personal-what works for others may not work for you. When you practice these techniques and adapt them for your individual needs, your communication skills are certain to improve.

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