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Yes, you can improve how effectively you communicate, which can only help your career.
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updated 2/27/2012 10:59:13 AM ET 2012-02-27T15:59:13

Our communication style and approach speak volumes about how we view ourselves and others. It also reveals important clues about our sense of worth, power and ability to lead and manage effectively. Everything we do is communication – we can’t NOT communicate.

Unfortunately, for a large number of professional women, communicating powerfully and authoritatively in the workplace and in their professional endeavors is a deep challenge.

Why do so many women struggle to be confident and authoritative communicators?

There are numerous colliding factors that contribute to women’s communication challenges in the workplace.

First, gender stereotypes abound. For instance, research shows that success and likeability in the professional arena are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This means that the more “successful” or assertive a woman appears, the more she is judged negatively and disliked for it. Being criticized harshly for success consciously and subconsciously impacts how strident, self-assured and successful a woman wishes to appear.

Secondly, as senior leadership remains the bailiwick of men (women make up only 16 percent of senior corporate leadership in the U.S. today), a more “male” style of communicating remains dominant and is more accepted and understood. Recent research findings have shown that men and women’s communication approaches differ in 10 important ways. Further, men and women are culturally encouraged and trained (from early childhood on) to focus on different outcomes and tasks through their communication (and brain anatomy plays a part as well). These core differences in style and approach affect how women’s communication is received and perceived.

Women can use the above realities as excuses to hold them back, or they can navigate through them, and insist on nothing less than powerful and authoritative communication.

Does your communication approach need modification? Here’s how you can determine if your communication style is hurting your career:

1) People don’t respond well to your words and actions

In a seminar I gave last week at Pepperidge Farm on Fostering Collaboration in Communications and Relationships, we discussed how you can see, immediately, without question, how well you communicate by the outcomes you receive.

When you speak, or present at a meeting or run your staff meetings, what happens? Do your colleagues respond positively? Do they want to follow-up on your initiatives and suggestions, or shoot them down? Do they support you, or criticize your contribution? In the end, do you engender loyalty, support and trust, or do people walk over you or put you down when you communicate?

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2) Your point doesn’t get made

Another indicator of your communication effectiveness is if you feel you get your point across, and that your input is considered. When you speak, do others listen well, and get what you’re saying? Does the conversation build on what you’ve offered, or does it veer off immediately to focus on another topic, or another person’s input?

3) You’re not taken seriously

You can’t grow your career and advance to leadership if you’re not taken seriously. Do you communicate in a way that makes people believe that you know what you’re talking about? Have you mastered the necessary information/skills/material you need to be an expert in what you’re sharing? And can you communicate in a way that demonstrates your intellectual and professional abilities? Have you developed the personal clout that will ensure you’ll be listened to, even if you don’t have the necessary data to support you at that moment?

4) There’s backlash from your words

If there’s negative backlash every time you offer a suggestion or initiative to consider, then it’s time to look at how (and why) you’re presenting your ideas. Perhaps you haven’t considered the ramifications or repercussions of your ideas, or are threatening others without knowing it. A powerful communicator knows his/her audience well, and understands the hidden agendas there. S/he knows what to do to neutralize the fear others may have. The effective communicator knows what emotions and thoughts her words will elicit in the mind of the listener.

5) Nothing is remembered from what you’ve shared

Finally, do you feel invisible? Do you contribute at meetings or in conversation but simply get talked over, and no one recalls that you spoke? If so, this is a sign that your internal and external “power” as a contributor and a player isn’t sufficient to hold others’ attention. You can change your power quotient, but first you have to acknowledge the power dynamic at work.

If any of these outcomes describe your experience, it’s important to become accountable for what’s happening and not blame others. After all, if you’re not getting the outcomes you desire, you have to look inward and own your part of it.

Get help to power up your verbal and non-verbal communication. Don’t make the mistake that some of my executive coaching clients do in thinking, “Well, that’s just me. I can’t change how I speak or behave – that’s my personality.” You can indeed improve your communication style and approach, and make them more effective, successful and empowered. And your career will thank you when you do.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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