HomeLearning CenterHow Powerful Women Leaders Communicate

How Powerful Women Leaders Communicate

Originally published by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. for Forbes

There are two sets of qualities that people look for in leaders: warmth/likeability/empathy and power/confidence/authority. While women often excel in displaying warmth (which shows up in their influence and collaboration skills), they may hesitate to directly seek or show power.

Some women, however, stand out as both the warm and powerful leaders they truly are.

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it serves as timely reminder to share what I’ve learned about the communication skills of the powerful women leaders I worked with in over 400 organizations where I’ve presented leadership presence programs.

Powerful women leaders embrace the verbal and nonverbal communication behaviors that impact the way others perceive them. Here are a few communication traps they don’t fall into — and what they do instead.

They don’t use disclaimers in conversations and emails. Phrases like “You’ve probably already thought of that,” I could be wrong,” and “This may be a stupid idea” (which I’ve noticed women using far more often than men) make us appear apologetic or unsure when making a point.

They do take ownership. Rather than offering their opinion in the form of a question (“Don’t you think it would be a good idea to have our meeting next Tuesday?”), they speak directly and use “I” statements (“I propose we have our meeting next Tuesday”), to take ownership.

They don’t ramble. The request I get most often from senior executives who have hired me to coach an emerging female leader is, “Please help her get to the point.” It seems to be a particularly female trait to want to explain the entire backstory before presenting the conclusion, but this can seem like rambling, especially to a male audience.

They do use a technique I refer to as the “Start with the headline” communication strategy, in which they state the conclusion first and then follow up, if needed, with explanations, examples, stories, and the process by which they made that decision.

They don’t always say “yes.” Many of us may accept requests and assignments almost automatically because we want to be liked or because we assume it’s our responsibility, but powerful women leaders are more selective.

They do know when and how to say “no,” using their values and priorities to ascertain what requests and assignments best serve themselves and their organizations. They take time to consider before deciding (“I’ll get back to you with an answer first thing tomorrow morning.”), they offer an alternative where appropriate (“I can’t do exactly what you requested, but I can do this . . .”), and they are realistic about trade-offs (“I’m happy to help you with X as long as you understand it will delay me finishing Y.”).

They don’t use fillers. The sounds of “um,” “ah,” and “uh” are known as “hesitation markers” since we use them as delaying mechanisms while searching for what we are going to say next. The habit of using fillers make us seem unprepared and less credible than we truly are.

They do understand and utilize “the power of the pause.” Instead of filling space between thoughts with meaningless sounds, effective communicators pause. It creates a dramatic effect, allowing them time to recall the next point while allowing their audience time to absorb their message.

They don’t become invisible. One of the saddest comments I’ve heard was from the head of Human Resources for a Fortune 500 company who told me he’d proposed a female candidate for promotion to a group of executives – and no one in the room knew who she was.

They do stand out. Powerful women promote themselves by volunteering for projects, giving speeches, networking, writing blogs, and taking leadership roles in professional organizations. They set themselves up for that next promotion by making sure that others know who they are, what they’ve done, and what they can do next.

They don’t underestimate the impact of body language. Try this now: Sit in a chair with your legs tightly crossed, bring your elbows into your waist, clasp your hands together and place them on your lap while slightly rounding your shoulders. It’s not surprising that most people would evaluate that posture as powerless – but it may surprise you to know that some version of this very posture is the way most women sit. We tend to condense our bodies, keeping our elbows to our sides, tightly crossing our legs, and contracting our bodies to take up as little space as possible. And when we do, we don’t look like leaders. We look physically smaller, weaker, and more fragile than we are.

They do remember that power and authority are non-verbally demonstrated by expanding into height and space. Their body language exhibits confidence as they sit or stand tall, pull shoulders back, widen arm movements, and hold heads high.

They don’t downplay their achievements. They don’t minimize or dismiss compliments by attributing their success to other people or lucky circumstances. They don’t minimize the value of their (or their team’s) contribution by starting with statements with “I’m just,” or We’re just” when talking about an accomplishment.

They do graciously accept compliments. Powerful women leaders share credit when appropriate, but also own their personal successes. When someone acknowledges their achievements, they’ll most often reply, “Thank you.”

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