These steps and powerful questions can help you Listen Louder and guide positive conversations to create communities and workplaces that are BETTER TOGETHER.
How easy am I making it to share diverse points of view?
How open am I being to different styles of communication?
Don’t confuse consensus building and inclusive language with weakness. Tara Mohr, the founder of the Playing Big leadership program for women, writes, “Listen with fresh ears to the women around you, and you’ll hear some odd turns of phrase. You’ll notice that much of the time their words sound like a kind of struggle—between saying something and holding back, between asserting and not being too assertive, between sharing an idea and diminishing it.”
Mohr presents a list of “diminishing words” that women often use and say in verbal and written communication—words and patterns that, to some, convey tentativeness, self-doubt, or self-deprecation:
● Kind of
● Sorry, but
● A little bit
● Speech patterns like “Uptalk”
She asserts that female voices develop differently from girlhood, and that needs to be OK. Rather than demanding that language be fast, immediate and assertive, men need to learn to value deliberateness and even tentativeness. The care and caution that guides female language carries information. While women need to work on using fewer disclaimers, the burden should not solely be on the speaker, but on the listener as well. As in all matters of human empathy, we must understand the signals before we judge.
We must acknowledge that “diminishing” words occur naturally to women and are fundamentally rooted in the ways women develop language and self identify from childhood. They are not a reflection of character. Men should NOT view them reflexively as weakness or lack of conviction, but rather see them positively as bids for inclusion, collaborative problem-solving, and allowance for multiple viewpoints in the workplace. They are meant to grease the skids, lower tension, and deepen work relationships. Next time you find yourself hearing a woman use these words, try not to focus on “weakness,” but instead respond to her bid for your understanding and openness to her perspective.
Challenge: Help People Stand Up and Stand Out
How will everyone’s point of view be heard?
What assumptions am I making about my co-worker’s motivation?
Don’t confuse realism and a desire to deliver achievable results with a lack of ambition. What men might reflexively misconstrue as an unwillingness to aim high or a lack of aggressiveness to achieve the most spectacular results should instead be viewed as sincere efforts to set clear expectations. As my female colleagues have often joked; “women are just more realistic.” Relationships matter and accuracy builds credibility.
This stems from the fundamental developmental differences between women and men as outlined in a landmark work on gender differences, In a Different Voice, published in 1982, by Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan. 2 In this seminal work on the contrasting ways that men and women communicate, Gilligan discusses how the two sexes start to bifurcate at young ages in how they self-define, which in turn affects their communication style in adulthood.
Challenge: Seek Clarity and Stay out of Judgment
What can I do to check any assumptions or ask for clarification?
What else can you tell me about this issue? What am I missing?
Practice active and empathetic listening skills. These include micro-interactions that build the other person’s self-esteem. To paraphrase Jack Zenger and Joself Folkman, founders of a leadership consultancy who wrote “What Great Listeners Actually Do” for the Harvard Business Review, the best listeners make the conversation a positive experience for the other side, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive or critical. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to should feel that the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.3
Being a great listener in the workplace makes colleagues feel supported and creates a safe environment in which issues and differences can be discussed openly. This means to listen without interruption, eliminate real-time debate, and be more patient when making your point. Most critically, being a great listener includes examining and checking your assumptions about the speaker’s position.
Empathetic listeners withhold evaluation. This is one of the most important principles of learning, especially learning through the ear. This requires immense self-control. While listening, the main object is to comprehend each point made by the talker. Judgments and decisions (oh, such as lack of ambition or “weakness.”) should be suspended. After she has finished, review and assess her main ideas at face value.
Challenge: Be Self-Aware
What is important to me about being an expert on this topic?
What knowledge does my co-worker have that I need?
Beware “mansplaining.” Coined by author Rebecca Solnit, mansplaining is when men explain something to a woman in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing, usually starting with an assumption that the woman is less knowledgeable.
Solnit coined the term when she described in a Los Angeles Times essay how a man was explaining to her the arguments in her own book, without acknowledging that she wrote it.
Sweden’s largest labor union, Unionen, famously staffed a “Mansplaining Hotline” in 2015 that fielded thousands of callers who phoned in during “mansplaining emergencies” to solicit tips on how to cope. However, the line quickly became dominated by angry male callers who talked at great length against the merits of such a line, and in turn, blocked many legitimate calls from women. To add insult to injury, female journalists who covered the issue were abused by male trolls on Twitter.
So why does this happen? Peter Tai Christensen, a gender expert at The Swedish Unionen, believes that mansplaining is an unconscious or conscious effort to restore male privilege at a time when traditional gender roles are perceived to be threatened.5
Mansplaining is maneuvering, tricks and suppression techniques designed to put women ‘in their place'” he said. He said whether it was intentional, a form of “misguided benevolence“, or just a habit, “the problem is basically that women are assumed to be less knowing, competent, important, or legitimate.
Men who find themselves mansplaining to a female colleague need to ask themselves these simple questions:
● Have you ever done her job?
● Have you seen her background work or due diligence?
● Have you been in service in that functional area more than her?
● Is your explanation relevant?
● Are you an expert?
● Did she ask?
● Are you her mentor, teacher, or person responsible for her education?
● Does she already know what you’re about to say?
Is there an unspoken bid for inclusion here I need to acknowledge?
How come this person is struggling to communicate? How can I make it easier for them to speak their truth?
Practice “turning towards” and getting curious. The Seattle based Gottman Institute is world famous for giving married couples practical exercises to 101 strengthen their relationships. John and Julie Schwartz Gottman are noted psychologists known for their seminal work on marital stability and relationship analysis through direct scientific observations, many of which have been published in peer-reviewed literature. Two Gottman exercises that are equally as easy to apply in the workplace as on the home front are “turn towards” and “get curious.”
Turning towards is a powerful concept that stemmed from research that Dr. John Gottman did on thousands of couples. Years later he found that some were still together, while others had divorced. Those who stayed together intuitively practiced behavior that he coined “turning towards,” which means they paid attention to bids for attention and correctly interpreted their subtext. A bid is an attempt to get affirmation, attention, or a connection. It can be in the form of a smile or a question for advice. With a married couple, a bid might be, “How do I look?” and the subtext might be, “Will you please spend some time and attention on noticing me?”6
Gottman’s research shows that men often miss these bids. Furthermore, they often misinterpret the subtext of the bid. This same dynamic occurs in the workplace as well, whether the bid’s source is male or female.
Turning towards is recognizing the bid and responding in a way that signals you understand the subtext. Sometimes that is as simple as saying; “yes.” Other times it is reflecting back your interpretation of what was asked.
“Getting curious” is a companion idea that once you’ve heard a bid, you should explore the “why” of it. As author Simon Sinek famously said, “Everyone has a why. Why is the root purpose or belief that causes someone to do what they do.” When you get curious about someone else’s “why,” you uncover the true reasons they believe what they are telling you and reinforce empathy listening.7
The next time a female colleague states a forecast that seems “wrong” to you (too conservative, too high, etc.), get curious and practice asking a question that reveals what is hidden. Replace the brain’s impulse to judge with the desire to learn more.
“I’m curious to know how confident you feel about these numbers? And why?”
“I’m also curious to know how your level of confidence might change if the numbers were higher, or lower?”
And further; “What do I not know about your background analysis that might change how I look at this?”