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Navigate Team Communication Like a Genderlect Pro

How Everyone Can Win the Communication Game

In my previous post, we looked at Deborah Tannen’s work on genderlect and why women and men often misunderstand each other. Here, I share more of her research and a few ideas on how we can become more aware of these differences—not only to improve teamwork but also to help women take charge of their rise to the top. As this is a vast, complex topic, the points below offer a basic starting point.

How Everyone Can Win the Communication Game

In the study of linguistics, all communication styles are considered equal. However, culturally, the situation is often different. Apart from cultivating empathy for one another, the most important thing team members can do to improve communication—and women’s chances of shattering the proverbial glass ceiling—is to become aware of each other’s communication differences. Through understanding the differences in each other’s conversation cultures, women and men can support each other in this struggle to understand and to be understood. In linguistics, the term convergence refers, amongst other things, to adapting one’s speaking style to mirror certain features of your conversational partner’s. This is a way of showing camaraderie.

How to Tell When ‘Yes’ Is the Preferred Response

I mentioned previously how Dr. Tannen suggests men are more direct in their requests to establish themselves as the leader. Conversely, women tend to be less direct in their requests so they don’t seem domineering; however, they still want their requests to be completed.

Here are three of women’s most commonly misunderstood requests and what they really mean.

Would you mind…?

Instead of giving direct orders, women tend to ask people whether they mind doing something. Their tone indicates whether it is a question or a polite request. When she says, “John, would you mind dropping off these documents with Mandy?” she most likely means, “John, please drop these documents with Mandy.”

Would you like…?

This is usually an indication that a woman wants to do or have whatever follows the phrase. A yes/no response can lead to misunderstandings, so take note, she expects to negotiate the best outcome for all concerned. When she says, “Would you like to have a meeting about the New York situation?” she most likely means, “We should have a meeting about the New York situation.”

What do you think…?

Often also presented as “How do you feel…?” Remember, this is not a weakness. She is perfectly capable of making a decision by herself. Considering those affected is simply her way of creating an inclusive work environment. When she says something like, “What do you think about relocating the Boston office?” she probably means, “Before I make a decision on this, I want everyone concerned to have an equal stake in the outcome.”

How Not to Get Lost in Translation

When we choose to respond rather than react, we force ourselves to become disciplined in considering our words before we share them. This gives us the opportunity to deepen our own inner worlds as well as our relationships.


Respect is key to developing an awareness of and empathy for others. Despite their own gender preferences and identities, women and men are all human. From here, our cultures and backgrounds add multiple layers of complexity to who we are and how we relate to situations and others. This is also why there is such strength in diversity. Female and male colleagues should guard against becoming adversaries.


Once we are aware of and respect our differences, we can set out to create a better understanding between the sexes. As with all communication, a calm, thoughtful response is always more constructive than an emotional reaction based on assumptions. This is where teaching and couples therapy meet at the office. When you feel confused or offended by a colleague’s message, firstly, assume nothing. Chances are that you could have misinterpreted and that the problem might be based on genderlect differences. Be willing to give your colleague the benefit of the doubt until you find out what they really meant.


Tell the person that you need to double-check your understanding of what they had said. Preferably speak in person. FaceTime or call if you really have no other option. Commit to listening in order to understand rather than to formulate an immediate comeback. In other words, listen to solve the problem rather than to “win this round.” This, of course, goes for both participants.


Find their perspective. To establish whether you misunderstood, repeat your interpretation of the original message to them and then see how that matches their intended meaning. Remember that nothing is ever personal. Women appear to be more driven by being accepted, and men appear to be more driven by conquering. When you really look at this, neither of the two needs exist exclusively. Instead, one drives the other, but in different ratios. Therefore, it is again more productive to focus on similarities rather than differences by attempting to understand the other person’s perspective.

How to Become a Ping-Pong Champ

Conversation implies exchange. Like with a ping-pong game, exchange can’t happen if one person hogs the ball, so aim for equal turns.

When speaking to men, women can gain a lot by answering their questions pertinently rather than offering drawn out descriptions. In a diverse office setting, men can become aware of how, when, and why they interrupt women. For instance, men from certain regions sometimes interject when women are speaking because they want to show camaraderie and support. However, in other instances, men interject to put themselves in a higher position and their female counterpart in a lower position. In females’ noted quest for group harmony and equality, this is one of the most uncool things anyone can do to a woman—especially in a work environment.

How do we solve this? Apart from following Tannen’s work on the subject, teams could start by speaking openly and by sharing their communication challenges pertinently. Perhaps by learning to distinguish team spirit from disrespect and by making an effort to support rather than confuse each other in conversation, American men and women could remedy the country’s female leadership deficit.


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