How to Talk to Women

When talking with women, keep these five pointers in mind. You'll find you will create stronger rapport and trust. You'll develop the very best relationships with women -- whether in the board room or in your personal life.
01/07/2015 03:32 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

A senior male executive recently asked me if I would consider launching a business project with him. I was honored and excited at the prospect. After all, he was a high profile executive and we had complementary backgrounds and skills. We could, I thought, work well together... and create something that did not yet exist. So I said "yes" and we started down this path.

It wasn't long before things began to break down. In our meetings I felt that he wasn't listening and too often ignored or attacked my suggestions. He made me feel as though I was his assistant rather than his partner.

I thought of confronting him with the truth but decided against it since the problem seemed so deep. I simply told him the project wouldn't work out. In fact, women don't want to tell men these kinds of things. We don't want to say, "Make me feel better when you talk to me."

But there are particular things that women look for from their male colleagues -- patterns of communicating that encourage collegiality and make women more comfortable in what has traditionally been a largely male environment. Now that more companies recognize the importance of benefitting from the insights of both men and women, there is a need for new ways of relating.

Your ability to create an open and supportive climate for women involves knowing the "inside track" to communicating with them, whether they are your peers, your boss or your subordinates (not to mention your partner or wife). By following the five suggestions below, you will encourage the women in your workplace to confidently share their views and see you as a thoughtful, caring, and supportive communicator and leader. Not a bad outcome!

So what are the secrets of speaking to women?

1. Ask For Her Views

To begin with, invite women to express their views. Women have been taught to be polite and agreeable and often are less comfortable speaking their minds than men are. So ask them to share their thoughts. In a meeting that might mean reaching out and inviting a woman who has not yet spoken to share her views on a particular topic. You might say, "We haven't heard from Maria yet..." or "Cory is the subject expert on that, let's hear what she thinks." You'll find that once you give women "permission" to speak, they will do so more frequently on their own.

Take a leaf from President Obama's year-end press conference where he took questions only from women. These were women who traditionally had not spoken.

2. Listen to Her

Listen closely -- and patiently -- to what women are saying. It's a known fact that men don't listen as well as women do. Men like to interrupt -- they initiate the majority of interruptions in business. They often challenge the speaker before an idea is fully developed, and wait to see how the proposal is defended. It's the way men interact with each other -- and it's not meant to be a put down. But it is a turn-off for many women, who feel less respected when they are interrupted! In a business setting interruptions also mean that many excellent ideas will be lost. So take the time to engage in thoughtful listening.

3. Empathize With Her

Show empathy for the point presented by a woman -- even if you disagree with it. Women want to know that you appreciate what they have said. Men have less need for approval so empathizing may not come naturally to them. In a meeting you might say, "That's an important point," or "Thank you for sharing it with us."

Show empathy in your face: look at a woman directly when she is speaking, and have a warm and receptive expression on your face. Don't give her a blank stare -- as often happens when guys are listening but don't feel a need to reinforce.

Such empathy will give women greater confidence in expressing themselves. It will also make them feel better about you, their audience.

4. Don't Attack

Don't attack. Going on the offensive often is a "guy thing." A male might say, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." And the guy it's directed at will not take the remark personally. He might come back with, "Don't you get it?"

But women have a totally different dynamic in communicating and will often take such retorts personally. If you say to a woman "That's simply not true" or "I disagree," your comment will probably cut deeply. A better approach is to be as positive as possible. Even if you disagree with her, begin in a collegial manner by saying, "I can understand why you say that" or "I see where you're coming from."

5. Coach Her

Finally, provide women with active support. Men's willingness to take risks and act assertively in their own lives can make them great coaches for women.

I have a female client who told me her husband encourages her to present her ideas more forcefully at work. She prepares for key pitches by delivering them aloud to him, and it has proven to be an effective approach to building her presentation skills. The CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, said that her husband once coached her on taking a stronger stance when offered a position that she thought she wasn't qualified for. Men have that confidence that women frequently need -- so when speaking with women, encourage them to go for it! They will be ever grateful to you.

When talking with women, keep these five pointers in mind. You'll find you will create stronger rapport and trust. You'll develop the very best relationships with women -- whether in the board room or in your personal life. Women and men do have different approaches to speaking. By understanding what women want you will reach them more often, support them more fully, and achieve outcomes that benefit you and your organization.

For further advice on how to understand women and speak to them more effectively, see my recent book, Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand Out, and Succeed. Twitter: @Judith_Humphrey