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He Said, She Said

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As a female business owner in a male-dominated industry, Roxanne Rivera remembers one of her earliest lessons about effectively communicating with men. While negotiating with a subcontractor on a price for a job, Rivera was trying to read his body language so she could tell what he was thinking.

“He kept frowning, so I assumed he was unhappy with the way negotiations were going,” says Rivera, who owned a multimillion dollar construction company in New Mexico and now serves as CEO of Syntactics Communication Skills LLC. “I started to get defensive because of that frown, and we ended the meeting with nothing resolved. Later, he called to say he’d do the work and that the price was fine. I admitted that I thought he was unhappy with the price and wasn’t going to call back. He asked me why in the world I thought that and I told him, ‘Because you kept frowning at me!’ He said, ‘I think I was frowning because I was hungry. My wife tells me I frown when I’m hungry.’” Rivera had completely misunderstood the situation, “because I was trying to read his body language as if he were a woman!”

When it comes to communication styles, there’s a definite difference between genders, and plenty of self-help books—including John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women Are From Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex (1993) and Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990)—have been published with the aim of enlightening us all.

Certainly, understanding how to effectively communicate with the opposite sex is an important trait for any business leader—regardless of gender. As Rivera puts it, “If you can effectively communicate, you will be successful. In today’s world, we are so dependent upon [tools like] computers and text messaging that we’ve forgotten that simple, effective one-on-one communication is ultimately what will make or break us in the business world.”

For women working in a traditionally male-dominated industry like collision repair, understanding how to communicate effectively with the opposite sex is especially important. After all, if the majority of your communications involve men, and yet you don’t fully understand how they communicate, chances are you’ll be having far too many frustrating, ineffective conversations. And that can hurt your business’s performance.

“I find it very difficult at times to communicate effectively without stepping on men’s toes,” admits Diane Rodenhouse, owner of Rodenhouse Body Shop in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a general director of the Automotive Service Association (ASA). Indeed, the topic of effective communication is one that the automotive service industry is paying attention to: At last year’s International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE) conference, the Women’s Professional Development Track featured a session called “How to Communicate Like a Pro.” The class was billed as a way for attendees to “learn how to correctly use assertive language and mannerisms that send a message of power, confidence, and authority” as well as help them “identify the most common communication pitfalls and how to sidestep them.” So what are the keys to effectively communicating with men? Rivera offers six tips:

1. State your needs clearly and succinctly. Men prefer straightforward answers rather than innuendo. Use clear, simple statements that convey your precise meaning.

2. Keep the conversation focused. Women’s brains tend to be better wired for multitasking, whereas men are more focused. Avoid giving too much information.

3. Don’t back down. Men’s communication styles seek to establish and maintain status and dominance. “This is not sexist, it’s how man evolved,” Rivera explains. “Women are more consensus-oriented in their communication style, seeking input and approval. I tell women not worry about being agreeable [when they know their points are] good and correct.”

4. Keep your emotions in check. The name of Rivera’s website—NoCryingInConstruction.com—says it all. Men tend to be blunt, and women tend to take things personally. Rivera says to “take a deep breath, and let it go.” Rodenhouse agrees: “Men in this industry will sometimes challenge a woman more than a man. I learned long ago that you can’t cry.”

5. Eliminate “tag” questions and disclaimers. Women tend to “tag” their statements with questions and disclaimers that are meant to seek consensus or approval. For instance, “I think we’re being a little loud, don’t you?” may be intended to be polite, but it sends the message that you lack authority.

6. Engage in strategic questioning. In male-dominated fields men tend to monopolize meetings, according to Rivera. To gain the floor, ask questions that illicit new information. If a male colleague is talking about how profitable a new process will be, ask ‘How will this money affect the company?’ instead of, ‘How much will we earn?’ “A strategic question tends to analyze and provide options. It’s more dynamic and will help you gain the floor more often.”

Ultimately, understanding communication differences is less about changing your communication style than adapting it. And that, it turns out, is Rivera’s best tip:

“Develop the ability to adapt your communication style with regard to whether you are speaking to a man or a woman,” she says. “Women are better at interpreting nonverbal communication, while men are more goal-oriented when they communicate. And each communication style has its own strengths.”

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