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We spend a great deal of time at work, and in our personal lives, choosing the right words to use with our bosses, peers, employees and even our loved ones. We know words are powerful tools we have at our disposal; they reflect directly back on us as professionals, friends and partners.

But did you know that effective communication isn’t as simple as using the "right" words to say what you mean? How you say what you mean is critical, and it varies from one person to the next because language is a learned social behavior.

Deborah Tannen, a career linguist, researcher and author of The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why, took her studies to the workplace and observed how ways of speaking learned in childhood affect judgments of competence and confidence by bosses and peers. These judgments directly affect who gets heard, who gets credit and what gets done. Tannen also found that at work, people (and bosses) are likely to reward communication styles similar to their own.

Tannen states, "The research of sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists observing American children at play has shown that, although both girls and boys find ways of creating rapport and negotiating status, girls tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the rapport dimension of relationships, where boys tend to learn rituals that focus on the status dimension."

Key Takeaways

  • Effective communication is more than saying the "right" thing.
  • Talk with your manager about things you do that she may not have noticed.
  • Before you communicate, determine what you want the outcome to be.

Childhood Play and Communication Rituals

Generally, we learn communication rituals, with some exceptions, through childhood play. Girls tend to play with a single best friend or in small groups, and they spend a lot of time talking. They use language to negotiate how close they are; for example, the girl you tell secrets with becomes your best friend. Girls also downplay ways in which one is better than the others and emphasize ways in which they are all the same. Mostly, girls learn to talk in ways that balance their own needs with those of others and to "save face" for one another, in a broad sense.

Boys interact differently. They usually play in larger groups and not everyone is treated equally. Boys with the high status in their group are expected to emphasize rather than downplay their status, and usually one boy, or several, will be identified as the leader or leaders. Boys negotiate their status with each other by displaying their abilities and knowledge and by challenging each other and resisting challenges that are directed at them.

Like people who have grown up in different cultures, women have often learned different styles of speaking than men – and these carry over into the workplace. Studies indicate that women are less likely than men to "blow their own horn" and are more likely than men to believe that if they do, they won’t be liked. Studies show that women are also more likely to downplay their certainty and men are more likely to minimize doubts.

Amy Carlson of KeyCorp Shares Her Thoughts

Based on what we learned from Deborah Tannen’s research, most of us, whether male or female, can think of a time – or 10 – when we were misunderstood at work or when we misinterpreted someone else’s words or actions. These situations tend to be memorable learning moments due to the emotions that surface during a misunderstanding. We can also learn more about our communication differences through reading, training courses and close day-to-day observation within our daily lives. Sharing experiences through storytelling is also an impactful way to learn and can be as simple as asking a co-worker or manager a few questions over lunch.

Amy Carlson, Executive Vice President & Group Head of Debt Capital Markets, KeyCorp, remembers going to a conference and hearing a story that stayed with her over the years. The story was about a woman who was working hard at her job and was smart, level-headed and well respected within her peer group. In fact, she often had a line of people at her desk asking for advice and input.

However, when it came time for her performance review, her boss stated that he wanted her to work on her influence in the workplace. "I have a line of people outside my office whom I practice that with each day," the employee said. According to Carlson, "Remember that your manager doesn’t necessarily notice everything you want them to notice. Sometimes a boss needs to be made aware of what you are doing in other ways. I fully expect my team members to fill me in on aspects of their work that I may have overlooked."

Carlson continued, "There is a fine line between bragging and informing, but I encourage team members to tell me things I may not know or haven’t noticed. Especially now, during COVID-19, when we are physically removed from each other, it’s important that both men and women share with their bosses the roles they are playing on projects and on the team. You cannot assume that your boss knows everything you are doing. This is one way of finding your voice at work. Remember though, that emotion should be left out of the discussion. This in itself can take some practice."

Carlson grew up with three sisters at home and entered the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Smith College, a women’s college. "I grew up with women’s voices being heard and I expected the work world to be similar. The confidence I had was a blessing, but I may have been a bit naïve."

With more than 25 years of workplace experience, Carlson offered some tips for those finding their voices at work in the year 2020:

  • The world is not black and white. Give yourself and others some leeway to make mistakes.
  • Find humor where and when you can.
  • Give yourself permission to step away. We all have overwhelming feelings this year – you may need to take a few minutes for yourself.
  • Know your audience, state your position and avoid being overly rigid.
  • A bit of swagger is good. Walk right in and take a seat at the table.

You May Not See Her, but You Will Hear Her

Harsha Kapur, Executive Vice President, Head of Client Experience and Risk at KeyCorp, is small in stature with a big voice. As one of her managers once said, "You may not see her, but you will hear her."

Kapur learned while getting her executive MBA how important it is to find your voice. About six months into the program, Kapur noticed that her ideas and suggestions were not being heard by her team members. "It turned out that many of my suggestions were on point; however, I wasn’t being heard by the team. I took the opportunity to tell them how I was feeling, they listened, and things got much better."

Kapur’s first role at Key further helped her develop her voice in the workplace. "My role was in internal audit where conversations with lines of business can be difficult since you’re discussing deficiencies," Kapur said. "Sometimes I had to be very direct and stand my ground. Knowing that my leadership supported and backed my decisions helped me project confidence. That relationship and trust are very important."

To communicate effectively at work, it is critically important to know your audience, said Kapur. "There are nuanced differences between men and women," Kapur commented. "However, I wouldn’t stop there. It is important to understand who you are communicating with and what you want the outcome to be in that situation."

Here are some additional thoughts from Kapur on finding your voice, and your confidence, at work:

  • Do your homework and be prepared to state your opinion directly and succinctly.
  • Listen to your audience and acknowledge the validity other approaches.
  • Hone your negotiation skills. You need these during every single workday.
  • Ask for (or offer) opportunities to practice the art of successful negotiation.
  • Realize that you are always learning.
  • Be assertive, not emotional.
  • Dress up on a big meeting day! Clothes (and a pair of heels) can boost your confidence.

The Support You Need

For more Key4Women resources to help you reach your goals, visit key.com/women, or email us to learn more.

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