Staci Thomas, professor of practice in management communication, originally wrote this post for The SheSuite on learn.WashU, Olin’s learning management platform.
Researchers claim that anywhere from 55-90% of communications are unspoken, physical, “nonverbal” cues. You can take the high number or the low number. Either way, these signals constitute over half of how we communicate.
Yet, we tend to focus much more on the words we use. We plan our words. It turns out that your nonverbals could be affecting your success more than you realize.
Females tend to focus on delivering “empathic” or “warm” nonverbal cues. We turn towards speakers and participants. We nod and backchannel (“umm hmm”), not necessarily because we agree with the message, but because we want the speaker to feel heard. We seek inclusion by asking for insight and opinion. We lean forward, smile, and synchronize our movements with others. We tilt our heads toward others, the universal signal of listening, literally “giving someone your ear.” We truly make our communications collaborative.
Men, however, send more “status” signals through an array of nonverbal behaviors, such as side-to-side head shaking, and wearing a face of anger or discontent, even if they’re feeling neither. Men may listen best when they look away from the speaker, minimizing distractions to focus on the message. They stand tall or they sprawl, sitting with their legs spread or widely crossed, their materials spread out on a conference table, and their arms stretched out on the back of a chair. In a western context, space = power + ownership.
Which is the stronger style? Either? Neither? Like all things communication … it depends.
A female’s collaborative approach may seem submissive, and a male’s directness may be perceived as callous and uncaring. Men may seem aggressive when their broad use of space infringes on your personal space, when they crush your bones in a handshake, or when they emphasize status cues to the point that they seem arrogant.
The most powerful communicators balance empathy and power cues; they come across as confident and caring. Compare your nonverbal cues to those of your colleagues. Being aware of your style, then expanding your repertoire will sharpen the edge you need to succeed.