Communication style as a barrier:
How differences affect success

Publication: Law Practice Quarterly (Volume 1, Issue 4)

Section: Article

August/December 2000

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

In my final interview with a prestigious international search firm, one of the founders posed a question. I don't remember the question, but I do recall the responses. I began my reply by saying, "I think..." which he interrupted brusquely by retorting, "You think or you know???"

What I thought -- what I knew at that moment --- was that we weren't communicating effectively. Somehow we got past that moment and the job was mine. I've long used this anecdote to describe the pointlessly aggressive culture of the firm. But what I see now is that it also illustrates a common communication difference between men and women, one that can complicate rainmaking and performance evaluation, the gateways or obstacles to career success.

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession's Fair Measure report confirms that gender differences in communication styles are one of the five major challenges impeding women's advancement. Women may not measure up, "based on their manner of verbal expression rather than on the extent of their achievements... To a male supervisor, a woman lawyer may sound less definite and self-assured, more questioning and cautious, and more uncertain and hesitant than a male attorney."

The more dominating communication style of men is evident in many ways, such as their greater tendencies to interrupt others, to speak more forcefully, to declare their stands (rather than pose questions), and to avoid qualifiers that mute their stands. The perceived differences result in what to many looks like the picture of confidence and authority, i.e., the perfect advocate.

Examples of the negative impact of communication differences on the careers of female attorneys abound in my consulting practice. A recent example: Ellen is a smart and articulate junior associate from a large and well-respected law firm. She is leaving the firm because a brilliant and notoriously demanding partner lost faith in her abilities. She went from being his "golden child" to the opposite. Why? According to formal and informal evaluations: communication style.

The primary criticism boils down to the caliber of her communication, not the quality of her work. She did not demonstrate the confidence the partner required. When the partner asked her to research an issue, he expected her to pick an interpretation and push her recommendation aggressively. Instead, she presented various alternatives with associated pros and cons. Her tentative style undermined her credibility with clients as well as the partner. Another partner, helpfully, but belatedly, chalked up the problems to communication style. She urged Ellen to speak more forcefully, take a stand, choose a course and defend it. The even-handed style Ellen had adopted would not do. Unfortunately, this advice came too late.

Gender differences in communication can also impede women's rainmaking success. The tendency to put the relationship ahead of the task can interfere with rainmaking: some women find it next to impossible to ask for business. I have repeatedly observed this focus on building rapport at the expense of building business.

Angela, a capable and dedicated attorney who excels at building relationships with the firm's clients and providing excellent work and service to them, is an example. Where she does not excel is in being assertive enough to go for the close. She can take a prospect to lunch, have a pleasant conversation, elicit their business needs and suggest some alternatives. She has had great difficulty in taking it to the next and critical step: making a direct request for their business.

Effective marketing is about being explicit, showing an assertiveness and confidence that clients want in a lawyer. Angela, and many women like her, argues that the desire for the business is implicit in everything she has done. She finds a specific request distasteful and unduly pushy. The failure to ask for the business outright may be interpreted by the woman as subtlety and sensitivity, but may be construed as vagueness or weakness by a prospective client. When a business development lunch is not brought to a business conclusion, prospects may feel their time has been wasted.

Gender differences in communication can also undermine attempts to demonstrate a more authoritative style. Karen's easy-going, low-key style is misinterpreted as weakness in the deliver, deliver, deliver culture of her firm. She is consistently under-estimated by her hard- driving boss. Karen works just as hard as he does, but she doesn't let him or anyone else know what she is doing and why it is important. When an under-performing staff member did not respond well to her loose directives, she abandoned her typical style, insulting him with anger and micro-management of his tasks. Having not learned to be assertive in everyday practice, she had trouble effectively adopting a more commanding style.

The same thing is true in rainmaking situations: some women over-compensate by being too aggressive in asking for business. Carolyn is someone who felt so uncomfortable with business development that she went overboard when she tried to be more assertive. She asked for the business before hearing a prospect's needs or concerns, or before establishing her own qualifications. She tried so hard to demonstrate her expertise that she came across as uninterested in what prospects had to say. As a result, that is what they stayed - prospects, not clients.

Ellen, Angela, Karen, and Carolyn are far from alone in learning painful lessons in communication. The Fair Measure study identifies a basic gender difference in the purpose of communication: men use communication to dominate, while women use it to establish rapport. Both objectives are useful for a practicing lawyer. However, when the people in power who award work and evaluate performance (primarily men) generally have a different communication style, female attorneys are likely to suffer.

The purpose of this article is not to suggest that women cannot win or that it is all men's fault. Rainmaking and communications training, as well as objective and behaviorally based performance criteria, can mitigate women's disadvantage due to their different communication styles. Practical interventions can be as simple as individual coaching and group practice sessions in how to communicate clearly and powerfully in work situations. Training and evaluation systems can help eliminate gender bias in communication style and facilitate advancement in the profession of law. Women lawyers, law firms, and the field of law have too much to lose if we do not take these important corrective measures.

This article originally appeared in the August/December 2000 issue of Law Practice Quarterly (Volume 1, Issue 4), a publication of the American Bar Association.
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