Research Paper By Amanda Jane Franklin
(Communication and Leadership Coach, ITALY)
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw
Language is the tool with which we define ourselves, our colleagues, and our workplace. Transform language and we transform them all (“How to say it for women” by Phyllis Mindell¹)
As the owner of a language coaching organization and after having worked in corporations for many years, language holds a particular interest for me and is very close to my heart. I support nonmother tongues in learning the ‘universal’ language of English for their business communication needs, but over the years I have come to realize that also people’s native language consists of many hidden and unconscious pitfalls.
In this research paper, I would like to discuss just how much communication imbalance affects the ability of people to ‘transform themselves’ and climb the corporate ladder, how the language glass ceiling is having a stronger impact than most of us might believe and, probably more significantly, the importance of raising the awareness of the harmful and detrimental impact this situation may have on the company as a whole. Through a blended coaching approach, it would be possible to address this situation from many fronts:
- supporting clients in raising their awareness on what is blocking them from being wholly successful in their careers in corporations
- providing clients with an awareness of how their way of communicating may be contributing towards this block, as well as providing them with possible tools to use to counteract potential negative effects.
- allowing the board and the top executives to understand that they risk subconsciously discriminating against their subordinates who do not reflect/implement the expected and desired language patterns and, as a consequence, miss out on the potential these people could bring to their company.
Much of the research into language ‘pitfalls’ focuses on the difference in men and women’s language but in this paper, I do not want to make it specifically a gender issue since there exists research that disproves some of these theories. Instead, I would like to look at language issues in general, language used across genders and generations.
Pure Coaching vs Blended Coaching (Instructional Coaching)
The corporate world on average allocates approximately 3% of its budget to training, and this amount is also advocated for private individuals who want to invest in their professional development. Most companies I am familiar with providing training on EFL (English as a Foreign Language) to allow their employees to communicate more effectively with foreign clients or stakeholders but I have not yet met a single one who invests in understanding how the use of their native language may contribute to misunderstandings and power imbalance inside their company and how this could negatively affect meritocracy, talent retention and promoting the best to positions of power.
Instead, allocating some of their budgets to blended coaching on this subject could resolve some of the common reasons for dissatisfaction and frustration found in many corporations.
When applying the pure coaching approach, according to ICF, coaches “seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful. The coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources, and creativity that the client already has.”In this way, we help the clients find their answers, solutions, and actions.
Pure coaching is an extremely powerful process but in some cases, the client does not possess the resources necessary to resolve certain situations, and this is where a blended approach might be considered more suitable. By blending pure coaching with instructional coaching, “the coach provides what the coachee may lack… and….shares his or her own experience, expertise, and crafts wisdom … by using traditional teaching strategies.”²
Through this blended approach, the clients would be able to uncover their own beliefs, focus on aspects they choose to work on and improve on and be provided with the knowledge and tools they do not currently possess. Another reason for using a blended coaching approach, in this case rather than a traditional instructor-led workshop, is because, like Bloom, Castagna, Moir & Warren state³, “adult learners do not automatically transfer learning into daily practice. Coaching and other kinds of follow-up support are needed so that the learning is sustained.” If the company is serious about lasting change, this approach becomes fundamental.
Pitfalls leading to potential subconscious discrimination in corporate communication
In the workplace there is a surprising amount of language aspects that may easily either rocket people to the top or create a glass-ceiling, leaving some people behind and not knowing why.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are continuously judging people’s communication styles, especially for likeability and authority. Speaking in general, the female style is often more collaborative as they tend to be inclusive, and so women are often perceived as more likable, while the male style tends to come across as being more effective and decisive, leading them to be perceived as more authoritative. As Carol Kinsey Goman mentions“communication style turns into a weakness when overdone. A female’s collaborative approach can come across submissive and a male’s directness can be taken as callousness/aggressive” and she continues by saying “the most effective communicators, male and female, are masters at balancing power and empathy signals so that they come across as both confident and caring.”⁴
Continuing the idea of a more ‘male vs female’ style, although as I have already mentioned it is not only a gender issue, females tend to ask more questions, which is part of their inclusive style, while men are more reluctant due to their fear of losing face. This has, unfortunately, been interpreted as women being less knowledgeable or less confident.
Carrying on from this, another important difference is that, during meetings, women are often perceived to be participating less because they tend to wait until there is an appropriate gap when someone else is speaking before asking questions or voicing their opinions, whereas men do not necessarily wait for the other person to finish. This leads to men being seen to be more proactive and having more to offer.
These are just some aspects of language that may create an imbalance of power, leading to discrimination, while other aspects are:
Voice pitch: it has been found that CEOs with deeper voices are managing larger companies, making more money, and are kept on longer with their companies⁵.It has also been shown that voice pitch affects how people perceive a speaker’s competence, honesty, and strength, believing that people with a deeper pitch are more trustworthy and competent⁶.
From this research, it might appear obvious that men would have an advantage over women when it comes to being considered for promotion for roles of leadership or running for office, as they generally have a deeper pitch. This could explain to some extent why there are more men than women in the top tiers and it might also be one reason why Margaret Thatcher teamed up with a vocal coach to lower her voice in a bid to make her sound firmer and more powerful, thus counteracting this potential prejudice.
The example of Margaret Thatcher demonstrates the fact that women are not necessarily excluded from the picture since the same studies also found that females with lower-pitched voices were considered both by men and women as being strong reliable and trustworthy and were also voted for in elections.
One interesting fact is that in the last 50 years it appears that women’s voice pitch has dropped by 23 Hz and it is believed that this reflects the fact that women have risen to more prominent roles and have therefore naturally adapted their tone to come across as being stronger and more authoritative.
An important thing to note is that tone may be a cultural preference as it seems that higher pitches are preferred for some roles in East Asian countries. As the voice coach Amy Stoller says,
it’s best to think of changing one’s voice as broadening your range and expanding your limitations so you have more vocal techniques you can use in your speech, depending on the circumstances⁷.
Upspeak (a rising intonation even in statements): this is often interpreted as the speaker lacking confidence and feeling a sense of inferiority as they are indirectly inviting the listener to confirm or agree with what they are saying. Upspeak has often been seen as being used by women, and this has, therefore, opened them up to criticism for coming across as being insecure and needing reassurance. However, upspeak has recently been seen in all genders and across different geographies with different interpretations. In Australia it seems to be more common in working classes compared to middle classes, so reflecting social class, but in the USA it is used by more senior and more powerful members of a group, thus reflecting a completely different picture of power and class. A more recent study has found that how the listener/audience interprets the upspeak depends greatly on how they see the speaker anyway (as being more expert vs less powerful in their role) and so what comes out of this is that “the most important factor that determines how upspeak is interpreted in the context in which it takes place”⁸.
Minimizing language: this term encompasses words like ‘just’ (as in ‘I’d just like to speak a minute about…’), ‘I feel’, and question tags at the end of statements. They convey the idea that the speaker may feel intimidated by the listener and may feel less knowledgeable, or they are asking the listener for confirmation as they do not dare to stand by what they are saying.
Saying the word ‘sorry’ when we are not apologizing is another example of minimizing language, in cases like ‘Sorry but I have a question…’ or ‘Sorry, could you say that again?’ The listener may interpret the overuse of ‘sorry’ as the person feeling inferior and so this one simple word is actually undermining our authority, even though “I’m sorry” is often intended as a way of getting the speaker’s attention or even meaning “I’m sorry that happened” rather than a genuine apology.
Another example of how we can undermine our knowledge or authority is if we add a phrase like ‘does that make sense?’ or ‘do you see what I mean?’ after we have explained our plan/point of view/opinion. Instead of standing confident and strong with what we have expressed, uttering these words immediately makes the strength of our whole concept collapse.
These choices are often habits that are developed over time rather than conscious decisions, but by paying attention to our choice of words and replacing these weak words with a stronger synonym, or completely omitting some words/phrases/question tags, the impact of the communication would dramatically turn around. For example, something as simple as substituting ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ with stronger equivalents like ‘I’m confident that’ or ‘I know for a fact that’ can make a huge difference in how people are perceiving the message we would like to pass on.
Every act of communication is a miracle of translation. Ken Liu
Application of blended coaching to redress potential discrimination
In recent years there have been ever-increasing numbers of training sessions on how to give effective presentations, public speaking, story-telling, and TED-style talks. On the contrary, there has been a great lack of awareness on the consequences of what happens when people inside companies are not adopting expected communication styles during their everyday meetings, conversations, and teleconferences. If we are constantly making unconscious judgments on who is in front of us just because of their voice pitch, their choice of words, the number of questions they ask, etc, we risk not recognizing people’s actual worth and potential contribution to the company’s growth. At the same time, if we are adopting these language habits, then we risk being blocked from advancing and not attaining what we believe we would deserve.
Blended coaching sessions would allow clients to understand how they are communicating and being perceived by others as well as allowing them to become more aware of how they are judging others, just through communication styles. With this new-found information, they would be able to start working to change their habits, if they so wish, but especially to become more open-minded, pushing aside their unfounded beliefs when listening to and professionally evaluating others. What this means in practical terms is that it is now crucial for us all to become aware of the power of communication styles and possible discrimination to ensure that, if we have something constructive to contribute, we all get heard, and if someone speaking to us has something constructive to contribute, they get heard.
This does not mean that we have to change our habits to fit in with expectations. However, along with the raised awareness comes the opportunity to choose how we want to proceed, with the full realization of what these choices entail.
I would like to end with a beautiful quote from Robin Lakoff’s book ‘Language and Woman’s Place’⁹which so aptly summarises, in my opinion, the essence of this paper:
Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. If we are aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and the effects our actions have on ourselves and everyone else, we will have the power to change.
¹Mindell: “How to say it for women” 2001
²/³Bloom, Castagna, Moir, Warren: “Blended Coaching: Skills and Strategies to Support Principal Development” 2005
⁴Goman: ”Is Your Communication Style Dictated By Your Gender?” Forbes Magazine Mar 31, 2016
⁵Behavioral Science ‘New Research Finds There May Be a ‘Million Dollar Voice’ for CEOs ‘ April 17, 2013
⁶Klofstad, Anderson& Peters: “Sounds like a winner: Voice pitch influences perception of leadership capacity” Royal Society of London, March 14, 2012.
⁷Johanson: “Is your voice holding you back” published 4th March 2015
⁸Skorobogatov: “What’s Up With Upspeak?” berkeley.edu/researchSeptember 21, 2015
⁹Lakoff: “Language And Woman’s Place” 1972
Marcus: “Do You Sabotage Yourself by Using Weak Language?”ForbesWomenDec 92011
Weissman: “Replace Meaningless Words with Meaningful Ones” The Harvard Business Review