Conversational Styles – a Gender Difference?

Guest post by Lynda Russell-Whitaker.

'Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare.

'Exactly so,' said Alice.

'Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.

'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least — at least I mean what I say — that's the same thing, you know.' Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Whilst humorous and entertaining, Alice’s conversation with the March Hare is a fantastical yet very commonplace example of the sort of misunderstandings – and frustrations - that can occur in a dialogue of two differing styles!

Language is a system of behaviour and we have many different tools at our disposal in this system: voice, facial expressions, gestures and other elements of an individual’s conversational style, give each of us clues as to how the other feels about what they’re saying. Distinct from the words spoken, Professor Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University refers to these as 'metamessages' in her book ‘That’s Not What I Meant’ (1996).

Language expresses how we balance involvement with independence in the world; it can be a means of expressing power or showing solidarity. When a conversation doesn’t seem to be going well, making minor adjustments in volume, pacing or pitch – speeding up or slowing down, leaving longer pauses or shorter ones - can enable us to get closer to a shared rhythm, which conveys collaboration and synergy rather than antagonism and competition. This can be crucial for entrepreneurs and business owners in a pitch situation, whether to potential clients or potential investors.

Your conversational style can also make the difference between being heard and being taken seriously, or not. It starts with self-awareness.

Research of the type conducted by Professor Tannen and her peers has shown that, as women we have a harder time being heard in business than as men, even when we are in positions of authority.

In her book, ‘Talking from 9 to 5’, Professor Tannen says: “Some of the men I spoke to – and just about every woman – told me of the experience of saying something at a meeting and having it ignored, then hearing the same comment taken up when it is repeated by someone else (nearly always a man).”

This can have a great deal to do with (though of course not exclusively) conversational style differences. Once you become aware of your style, adapting it to others often produces major results, though this does come with a note of caution!

Although it is more usual that women adapt their conversational styles to those of the men in a mixed group, they do this in a number of ways. Whilst women will raise their voices, interrupt and otherwise become more assertive in mixed company, they also keep - and even exaggerate - their female-style behaviours, which can backfire.

Whilst smiling and agreeing more often with what others have said is a way to build rapport and good relationships (both critical and prevalent in the most successful business development people) waiting your turn to speak so that you miss the chance to make a valid point can convey a lack of self-assertion which, in turn, can imply an absence of confidence, or at worst weakness.

Male-type behaviours in a woman also need to be monitored – they can produce a very different reaction, and not necessarily a positive one, particularly when you are managing women!

Those women who are particularly successful at communicating with other women, whether those  in a senior business role, or senior in the traditional professions such as law or medicine, find ways of being firm rather than authoritarian. They do this by maintaining some female-style behaviours, such as taking an indirect approach in asking for a task to be done, rather than the more authoritative, and some might say over-bearing, behaviour more often associated with men.

If you are an entrepreneur or business owner, as a woman you may well have these kinds of challenges when managing staff (of both sexes) as well as in your client relationships. This is when having the flexibility to adapt your style become’s a powerful tool.

In an ideal world, most of us would be so aware of our own conversational styles that we wouldn’t need to adapt to each others’ styles. As that is not the case, the solution seems first to acknowledge the different styles of communication that can occur between genders (and cultures of course) and become more aware of our own, our clients’, our employees’ and even our business partners’ conversational styles.

The next logical step is to become more ‘gender neutral’; seize opportunities to combine aspects of our style with that of those we communicate with, whether on a daily basis or just occasionally. By doing so, we can enhance our communications and interactions with each other; be heard and have our meaning accurately interpreted by others and ultimately our desired outcomes achieved.


  • Use your voice well: a pitch rise at the end of a sentence indicates a question and can indicate uncertainty or that you’re asking for approval. Conversely, a pitch fall indicates finality and certainty.
  • Watch - and listen to! -  the tone of your voice. Sometimes it’s the way you say something rather than what you say that produces the opposite of your desired outcome.
  • Stories are great to use when explaining something to someone, and use analogies. They can  simplify complex subject matter and clearly illustrate your point. They are another gender neutral communication tool most of us love – and we remember them!
  • Listen actively. If you show you are doing so through visual and vocal gestures it will help establish rapport – one of the essential skills for good business development.
  • To get back to where you want to be in a challenging, or antagonistic conversation, ask the other party ‘can we just rewind a few paragraphs?’ or similar. Using gestures along with the words supports the visual picture. This technique is surprisingly effective in getting a deal back on track.
  • Take an indirect approach with employees (especially if they’re female). Be firm rather than overly authoritative; ask rather than tell. You’ll achieve the desired result and have happier staff.

Lynda Russell-Whitaker works as a Consultant for Grant Pearson Consulting Ltd (GPB), specialists in presentation coaching and business development advice. Prior to joining GPB in October 2011, Lynda was a freelance coaching and training consultant with a background in new (digital) media, starting with digital publishing in 1991 for Philips Interactive Media Europe. She moved over to the development side, producing CD-ROMs and websites for clients across a variety of sectors. These included several interactive training tools. She was a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and was on the expert working group for the first MA in Interactive Multimedia in Europe. She started training new media project managers in 2000, moving on to presentation coaching in 2005. GPB’s clients are also pan-sector and since starting work for them in October 2011, Lynda’s clients have included GSK, KPMG and the bid team for London 2017 World Athletics Championships. They won!

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