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Everything We Know About Gender Communication Is Wrong

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In my conversations with women and men of all walks of life, ages and backgrounds, I notice that people are divided into two camps when it comes to gender communication: One believes that men and women inherently communicate differently and hence need to be treated differently, and the other believes that men and women don't communicate differently, but styles vary according to the situation. So which one is it?

I sat down with a woman I respect, nonverbal intelligence coach Sari de la Motte, to get her perspective on the matter. As the founder of FORTE, Sari has built a national reputation by working with Fortune 500 executives and top U.S. attorneys. She's been coaching and training in nonverbal communication strategies for over 10 years.

Ekaterina: Sari, we've all heard it before: men are from Mars, women are from Venus. We are different. We behave differently. We communicate differently. Is this true?

Sari: If I were to believe everything I read and hear about how genders prefer to communicate, I'd have to believe that I should have been born a man.

We've been told that men don't like to talk about their feelings and that women never stop talking about them. And yet if you take a peek into my own marriage, you'll see the exact opposite is true. Really? I have to like talking about my feelings because I have a uterus?

Stereotypes exist for a reason. Lots of women like to chat about their feelings. Lots of men don't. But the minute we start insisting that men are this way and women are that way, we actually understand each other less. Once we put people in a box and label them, we expect them to act accordingly. It's limiting.

Ekaterina: Why are we in this predicament in the first place then? Why the separation... and even subconscious bias?

Sari: We live in a complicated world. We like shortcuts. We figure, "If I can peg someone's personality or 'style,' then I'll know how to treat them. It will be easier to get along." Unfortunately, people don't stay in the boxes we create. Once we categorize someone a Type A Direct type, it's practically guaranteed that they show up tomorrow as a Type C Feeler type. The same can be said of gender. When we expect men to act this way and women to act that way, what happens when they act out of character? People get confused. And confusion leads to anger and bias.

Ekaterina: So are you saying that communication is totally random -- that there are no patterns or standards of behavior?

Sari: No, of course not. There are patterns. But those patterns relate to behavior, not gender or personality. People behave differently, depending on their moods, the day, whatever. Male or female, sometimes people want to connect with others and sometimes they want to get straight to the issue. Good communication happens when we remain flexible. But flexibility takes awareness. That's the problem with classifying people instead of behavior; once I label, I can stop being aware. If I've "pegged" you, I don't have to think about it anymore. Labels like "male" or "female" just don't give us enough information to accurately communicate. It's like when my husband's friend asked me recently, "What do women think about [fill-in-the-blank-topic]?" I answered, "Which woman?"

We've got to focus on what's observable. That takes nonverbal intelligence.

Ekaterina: So recognizing both nonverbal and verbal clues that pertain to a certain situation can be taught and are not gender-dependent?

Sari: Absolutely.

There are appropriate ways to communicate based on what you're trying to achieve that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in your underwear. For example, if you want to appear credible and authoritative, stand with weight balanced, gesture with your palms down and curl your voice down at the ends of sentences. If you want to engage someone and get them to open up, stand with your weight to one side, gesture with your palms up, and curl your voice up. These aren't "male" nonverbals or "female" nonverbals, they're appropriate nonverbals.

Men aren't born with voices that naturally curl down and women aren't born with voices that naturally curl up. We're taught to communicate this way. In general, women are socialized to be nice, and not to be bossy, demanding or firm. And yet we know that people with more authoritative voice patterns get promoted more easily and quickly. Why? Because the authoritative voice pattern sends the message that you know what you're talking about. And yet it's more acceptable in our culture for males to use the authoritative voice patterns than it is for females. Is it any wonder why female CEOs represent only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies?

Ekaterina: Any other tips on how to communicate more effectively, regardless of gender?

Sari: Lose the labels. Learning how to communicate appropriately has everything to do with observing and adapting to what the situation calls for and nothing whatsoever to do with gender.

For example, if I observe someone avoiding eye contact with me when I try to make small talk, I don't take it personally. I just get right to the issue. Conversely, if I see someone stiffen up when I attempt to discuss the matter at hand, I know I need to stop and take some time to tend to the relationship. Nonverbal communication is observable, allowing us to "see" how people prefer to communicate. Increase your awareness of what others are communicating nonverbally, adapt your approach, and you will have more success.

Ekaterina: If you could share one piece of advice with the women out there looking to grow their careers and succeed, what would it be?

Sari: Get some balance. I don't just mean work/life balance -- because we all need that -- I mean communication balance. Women often end up on the extreme ends of the spectrum. On one end you have women who are afraid to break out of "traditional" roles. To them I'd say, pair an authoritative voice pattern with good breathing, and you'll be taken more seriously. And on the other end of the spectrum there are women so worried about being taken seriously that they never let their "person" out. To them I'd say, don't be afraid to be approachable when needed. Charisma is all about timing -- sometimes you need to bring out your position; sometimes you need to bring out your person. Communicate both when appropriate, and become a rock star communicator.

Ekaterina: Thank you for your time today, Sari. I enjoyed our discussion. What is the best way to get in touch with you?

Sari: You can visit our website: www.nonverbalforte.com to learn more about nonverbal intelligence, or email me at: sari@nonverbalforte.com.