Making yourself heard

August 12, 2014

The latest episode of The Broad Experience focuses on what must be one of the biggest issues in any office: communication. I studied sociolinguistics at college and loved it. I've never forgotten the thrill of discovering how much more lay beneath our words than meets most people's ears. 

Robin Lakoff

In this show I feature two guests, sociolinguist Robin Lakoff, who put the topic of gender and language on the map 40 years ago, and Barbara Annis, author most recently of the book Gender Intelligence.

Barbara Annis

We look at how men and women use language at work, and why so often the sexes seem to be talking, but not really communicating. Why do men interrupt? Why do some of us women take so long to get to the point? Can we ever hope to understand eachother? 

There's a simple curiosity side to all this, but there's also an important career aspect for women. Since we still (most of us anyway) work in male-dominated environments, we're the ones who usually have to fit into the male paradigm, the male way of doing things. We are judged by a male standard. This Harvard Business Review blog, Women, Find Your Voice, is a great read that will have a lot of you nodding, regardless of your sex. It's about how women, even senior ones, often get drowned out at meetings, or fail to speak up. They bristle at all sorts of perceived slights. The men actually recognize the problem, but they don't understand why the women behave the way they do. The reason? We're each primed to communicate differently (more on that in the show), but most of us have no idea that's the case. So we usually fail to appreciate eachother's communication styles. Instead, they drive a wedge between us and can perpetuate problems for women at work.

One of Barbara Annis's pieces of advice is for women to tweak their style to communicate a little more forcefully, to be more up-front, in order to get men to pay attention. One thing I didn't get to in the show was that this may only work to an extent. An African-American woman I interviewed earlier this year told me about her difficulties communicating at work. She has to cope with her white supervisor's perceptions of who she is (which, she says, include 'intimidating' and 'aggressive'), and feels she often has to think long and hard before she opens her mouth. 

“I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Not all of us have to work that hard to get our points across. 

This is the second in what I hope will be a continuing series of shows on communication. The first was my show on the way men and women use humor at work. I couldn't get to body language in this show, so am saving that for a future episode. Amy Cuddy, on the offchance you're reading, I'd love to talk to you for that one.

Are you really a good communicator?

January 17, 2014

“Women tended to come into the conversation being very hesitant about what was possible...I watched them ask for less than they could have and walk away from certain opportunities because they felt they shouldn’t speak up for themselves.” – Wokie Nwabueze

Many women consider themselves good communicators. It’s certainly one of the boxes I’ve always felt safest about ticking when I scan a job description. Women are, we’re often told, wonderful at this stuff. But what does that actually mean? If it just means that we’re more verbal than men, well, perhaps some of us are (although it’s untrue that women speak many more words per minute than men). Many of us like communicating, we are often (but not always) good at expressing ourselves, at forming relationships with other people, at catering to different people’s needs. But a recent 85 Broads ‘jam session’ I attended got me thinking about what being a good communicator really means, and whether those of us who think we’re doing it right actually are.

The speaker was Wokie Nwabueze of Women Prepared To Lead. She’s been a lawyer, a mediator, and a professional communicator for more than 20 years.

She started by acknowledging that many women see themselves as excellent communicators. But later, she made this point:

“Being a great communicator is being able to find the words to articulate and support your goal in speaking – words that will land as they should with the listener.”

So being a good communicator is about getting what you want. How many of us can say we always, or even usually, get what we want when we speak?

Her talk covered some of the topics we’ve spoken about on the show or on this blog before: how to negotiate effectively, how to ask for something you want at work (including a promotion or more responsibility), how to network, how to articulate what it is you do best and why someone should pay for that – all with an emphasis on the type of communication required to get those things.


  • When you ask for a raise at work you can’t couch it in terms of what you want or need. It’s surprising how often I hear about situations where the person went in and said, ‘I need X more money because I’m having a baby’, or ‘I need Y amount of money because so-and-so is getting it’. Wokie pointed out that you must think about what your boss is looking for, not what you are, and dress your request in those terms.

“You need to influence your manager. You must be driven by what motivates them – so only after that, choose your words.”

Being a truly good communicator is about empathy and listening to the other person.

  • Part of getting what you want – a lot of it, I’d say – involves self-promotion, something plenty of women hate. But, says Wokie,“People getting raises and sexy projects are asking for them…it takes a certain level of confidence and a sense of deserving for one to do this. But without promoting yourself you’ll let opportunities pass that don’t necessarily need to.”
  • Many of us, especially early in our careers, think all we need to do is work hard and we’ll be recognized. Most of that time that is simply not true. You have to communicate to your managers what you want from your career, and how you can serve the company's needs, otherwise don’t be surprised if they pass you over for that other person who has been working it behind the scenes for months.

So what holds so many of us back from acting on this?

Fear, of course.

Wokie elaborated: “Fear of rocking boat, fear of offending others, of appearing too bossy, needy, desperate, too masculine, fear of not being liked, fear or losing what you have because it’s good enough right now. Fear of being out of your league and out of your game. And of not knowing what to say in those situations [when you want something].”

I can identify with most of those flavors of fear and suspect a lot of others can too. The fact is, women still tread a fine line between societal/cultural expectations for our behavior and what we actually want to be able to do in life. Sometimes it just seems easier not to wade into what appear to be the treacherous waters of advocating for ourselves or putting ourselves 'out there'. But life can be so much more fulfilling when we learn how.