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How to Talk so Alpha Males at Work Will Listen

In the bedroom, it’s easy to laugh about men being from Mars and women from Venus.

In the boardroom, however, the joke wears thin when you find yourself struggling – yet again – to get through to alpha male colleagues. Or alpha females, for that matter – they can be just as challenging to communicate with.

The Boardroom Alpha is a unique breed. Typically extremely confident, demanding, fast-paced, challenging, competitive and strong-willed, sitting around and wishing they would change is a proven no-hoper.

The best strategy for a woman who wants to communicate effectively with people like this in the workplace is to value the differences, become highly attuned to their needs, and then actively tweak her behavior accordingly. This is not about ditching your integrity and becoming like a man amongst men, but rather, about consciously and powerfully choosing to communicate in a way that gets the best results. Because communication is the key to everything – recent surveys in both The Lamille Report of Top Executives and USA Today ranked communication skills No.1 among a list of up to twelve success factors in the workplace.

As Dame Anita Roddick, Businesswoman, Human Rights Activist and Environmental Campaigner, put it: “Your biggest tool of leadership is communication. Make it bold and enlivening and passionate – if you can't communicate, you’re just not there”.

91% of senior leaders agree that men and women have different leadership styles, according to recent Aspire research. An analysis by Hammer and Mitchell in 1996 found that two-thirds of men are “thinkers” (approaching tasks based on primarily logic), whilst two-thirds of women are “feelers” (approaching tasks based on primarily on emotions).

So as a woman, how can you talk in a way that will make the Alphas you work with listen?

15 Fast Fixes To Make Alphas Listen

1. Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone

Get straight to the point – give the key message first, don’t build up to it dramatically. Be punchy and focused. Talk in bullet points. Stay upbeat, recommend a solution or a course of action, and be prepared to justify your choice. Once the point is made, don’t keep repeating it – move on.

2. Banish “I Think”

If you were going to say, “I think we should press ahead with these budget cuts,” say, “We should press ahead with these budget cuts”. You will sound more confident and more authoritative, and be taken more seriously.

If you really want to include a caveat, say “My opinion is…” – “My opinion is that we should press ahead with these budget cuts”. It sounds more certain than “I think”.

3. Gesture Succinctly

Flaying arms alienate Alphas. Be as crisp and succinct with your body language as you are with your words. Draw imaginary lines out from each shoulder – if you use your hand to reinforce a point, keep it inside the boundaries of these lines, heading downwards onto the table.

Nicola Walther, whose most recent role was COO to the Head of Risk at Citigroup, finds that holding her little finger with the opposite hand during meetings is a great trick for forcing any gestures she does make to stay succinct.

4. Use Active Language

Switch passive language to active. “My team delivered this project” is more powerful than “This project was delivered by my team”. Alphas will have greater respect for you if you sound in control.

5. Watch your head

Women nod to indicate “Yes, I’m listening”. Alphas interpret nods as “Yes, I agree”. If you don’t mean to agree – don’t nod!

6. Avoid A Querying Intonation?

“It’s a complex topic… isn’t it?” Ending sentences on a throwaway question mark dampens your authority and makes your Alpha listener doubt what you actually think. Make the comment – and ban yourself from adding the throwaway question at the end.

7. Have you considered…

Beginning your sentence with “Have you considered…” is a great way of getting buy-in to your ideas. It’s not threatening, comes across as being constructive, and tends to engage big egos.

8. Speak Up

”A woman who’s quiet is meek; a man who’s quiet is focused and humble” – unfair, yes, but a representative opinion of many Alphas, as recently aired by a male MD at a global investment bank.

Not speaking up will be interpreted by Alphas as you being clueless and fringe to proceedings. In larger meetings, prepare a couple of questions or points in advance that you can raise if nothing else comes up for you to contribute to. Don’t be afraid to show your passion for a particular course of action – passion carries power, and power engages Alphas. Give blunt feedback on their impact where needed – Alphas respect bluntness and may not realize the impact they are having.

9. Apologize Less

Emphasize what you have done, not all the things you haven’t. Instead of “I haven’t had a chance to review all the data yet but…”, say, “The data I’ve reviewed so far suggests…”. Unnecessary apologies expose weakness – and an Alpha on a bad day will instantly go for the jugular.

10. Expect Challenge

Challenge is standard practice for Alphas. You have to expect it, not consider it an affront, and not take it personally when – inevitably – it comes. Rehearse beyond the obvious – what questions might come up from your Alpha colleagues? Have a few facts up your sleeve, ready to support what you said.

11. Focus On One Thing At Once

Alison Armstrong, author of Making Sense of Men, says men are ‘single-focused’, paying attention to one thing at a time. “Being multi-tasking and multi-awareness, women have often made the mistake of interpreting Single Focus as being stupid or stubborn,” she observes. “It is not. It is just a different way of thinking that is extremely effective for many purposes.”

It’s easy to think your mono-tasking male colleagues are deliberately ignoring you, because as a multi-tasking woman you are quite used to talking to someone at the same time as glancing through a document, assessing a piece of work or scanning your emails. Armstrong quips, “Men are never [reviewing a report] and ignoring us – that would mean they were paying attention to two things! Isn’t that great news?! All those times our feelings got hurt… they were not ignoring us! So you never have to be ignored by a man again!”

12. Use “Report Talk”

Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation, has observed through her research that men feel more comfortable with “report talk”, and women with “rapport talk”. For women, she notes, communication is primarily for establishing relationship, building rapport and increasing connection. For men, communication is primarily for establishing facts and enhancing power.

Tannen’s research represents male and female language in a series of six contrasts. Alpha male language focuses on status (vs. female language on support); on independence (vs. intimacy); on advice (vs. understanding); on information (vs. feelings); on orders (vs. proposals); and on conflict (vs. compromise).

Be aware of the differences. Don’t abandon your natural strengths, AND learn to “report talk” when you need.

13. Know Your Role

As well as the role already assigned you by your job title, keep in mind the bigger role your presence serves at every meeting you attend (which may well change each time). Maybe you are the Challenger, the Visionary or the Ideas Builder; maybe you are representing the voice of the team or the voice of practicality; maybe you are providing the perspective of Finance, or Marketing, or your whole industry. Ask yourself, “What am I personally bringing, that no-one else can, to this meeting?”

Jane Swift, a Director at BT, has found that clearly having in mind the purpose of her presence in any group or meeting helps her best handle Alpha types. “If I’m not sure why I’m there or what I have to contribute on that particular occasion, then it will come across. If you’re really clear as to why you’re there, you’ll be confident, which in turn will make you come across well.”

14. Fake It ‘Til You Make It!

60% of women think that the main thing they need to change to be more successful at work is to be more confident, according to Aspire 2008 research. Yet nearly the same proportion of men say women don’t need to change anything – organizations need to change.

The message to women? It’s highly likely the Alphas you deal with at work already consider you a confident person, so you might as well act it, even if you’re not feeling it!

15. Blend Your Style With Their Needs

Jackie Gittins, a director in the consulting practice at PwC, was interviewed by Suzanne Doyle-Morris for her very useful book, Beyond the Boys’ Club – Achieving Career Success As A Woman Working In A Male Dominated Field. Jackie explains: “I use what I call my ‘box and bubble’. I have all the facts and data that come from the figures – but I also bring in my bubble, which tells the story that illustrates what the data means in people terms.”

In other words, don’t lose your own identity. Become a savvy blender – tweaking your approach in some of the ways suggested here where needed, but not losing your individuality in so doing.

Posted by Rebecca Hourston, Director of Programs on Thursday, April 22, 2010
Tags: leadership, female, powerful communication, authenticity, impact, style, profile

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