There is a large body of work concerning the way women's communication style differs from that of men. For example, there is research suggesting that females downplay their certainty, while males downplay their doubts. In an effort to crack the female linguistic code, some have even gone so far as to assert that women and men speak different languages. But stereotyping the way women or men speak is dangerous and can be misleading.
A more reliable way of looking at the issue of communication styles is to look at it from the point of view of personality, which is independent of gender. Some individuals have a more personal or trusting approach while others have a more impersonal and skeptical approach to communication. Within the framework of a personality assessment such as the Myers-Briggs, these different types are labeled as Feelers and Thinkers.
If you are not sure whether you are predominantly a Feeling or Thinking type, you can take a quick quiz on the Myers-Briggs website. Thinkers place more weight on objective principles and analysis when making decisions while Feelers are more influenced by a concern for harmony and impact on the people involved. Thinkers are more questioning and critical, while Feelers are more accommodating and accepting of others.
If we are influenced by stereotypes, we might conclude that the majority of males are overwhelmingly Thinkers, while statistics indicate that a whopping 43.5 percent of males in the U.S. are Feelers. As for females, statistics show that approximately 25 percent have thinking preferences, i.e. are firm, tough-minded, ends-oriented as opposed to those with feeling preferences who are gentle, tender-hearted and means-oriented.
With this in mind, here are recommendations for improving communication with both types, regardless of gender.
Tips for Thinkers
Work on being more approachable. Consider that your style may be intimidating to some team members. Intimidation is not your ally. Work on making others feel safe in your presence. They will be more likely to share their insights with you and support you.
Listen without judgment. If you habitually use an evaluation approach when you listen, i.e. you judge and then either agree or disagree, consider listening without judgment at first. This requires a great deal of discipline, but suspending judgment and giving the other person the space to be heard is a prized skill that will instantly improve your interactions with others. As Steven Covey once has said: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
Use discretion when questioning others. Know when questioning others' insights and contributions adds value to the discussion, and when it is gratuitous and the result of force of habit. For example, at your next meeting, ask yourself if your questioning approach is to genuinely look at the bigger picture or if it is sub-consciously intended to show how smart you are. If it is the latter, temper your zeal with discretion.
Tips for Feelers
Don't avoid difficult conversations. Most of us have at least one conversation that we are avoiding—a conversation that the longer we put off, the worse the situation becomes. Develop the courage to face these difficult people issues. You do this by acquiring a few conflict resolution tools to help you become more comfortable with adversity. The book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, is a great primer for learning how to conduct these high-stakes conversations. Courage is a muscle; the more we use it, the stronger we become.
Wait for others to ask for advice before proffering it. In your desire to help, do you have a tendency to rush in to give advice, to solve others' problems for them? Establish clear boundaries of what is your problem to fix, and what is others' concern. Offer advice, if you are asked, but refrain from being everyone's savior. Consider how being consumed by others derails you from focusing on what matters.
Improve your decision-making process. Balance your strong concern for the people issues with a concern for the bottom line. Set up priorities and develop a more analytic approach when making decisions. Take this Mind Tools test to find out how good your decision-making style skill is. If you need help in this area, consider examining the 40-plus decision-making Mind Tools techniques to increase your ability to make more impartial decisions.
It helps to understand that there is no good or bad when it comes to Feelers or Thinkers—both approaches are necessary aspects of healthy communication. But each type also carries liabilities, especially when done to excess. Winston Churchill once said: "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Both Feelers and Thinkers could benefit from this advice.
Illustration by Cannaday Chapman