In her landmark book, You Just Don’t Understand, linguist and researcher Deborah Tannen, noted that women tend to use communication to connect and emphasize common ground, even from a young age. Men, on the other hand, more often use communication to compete, to assert their authority. Whether these traits are inborn or simply learned at a very young age, the fact is that they exist.
For women in leadership, acknowledging the way they communicate, relate to others, and even think can help them be more effective leaders. Understanding the unique styles of men and women can help us communicate more clearly and work together in ways that build up the body of Christ. Our differences don’t have to divide us.
Tannen, one of the leading voices on gender differences over the last two decades, wrote that women engage in “rapport-talk” while men tend to prefer “report-talk” in which they share facts and stories. “The men’s style is more literally focused on the message level of talk, while the women’s is focused on the relationship or meta-message level,” she writes. Her book debunks the idea that women talk more than men. They just use talking differently, and in different settings. Men talk more in public settings, often as a way of establishing authority, while women talk more in private settings, as a way of building relationships.
The church as a whole needs the voices of both men and women—and their differing perspectives—to accomplish its mission of reaching lost people. But often, women express feeling dismissed and misunderstood. How can women leaders share their wisdom so they are heard and understood? The more we know about how we communicate, lead, and influence, the more effective we’ll be at bridging the divide between our different styles.
In a dissertation titled, “How Men And Women Differ: Gender Differences in Communication Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles,” Karima Merchant wrote, “Female leaders have also been described as taking a more ‘take care’ leadership approach compared to the males’ ‘take charge’ approach.”
When it comes to leadership, however, she notes that different researchers have come to different conclusions: “There are two contradicting views on the study of the intersection of influence tactics and gender: one side arguing that both men and women use the same influence tactics, just in different situations, and the other side supporting that influence tactics vary across gender.”
She adds: “The gender differences in influence tactics outlined in the second school of thought imply that male managers are more assertive and authoritative when trying to influence others, while women tend to influence by means of consulting and inspiring.”
Merchant says the research is not conclusive, but notes that many studies show that communication styles differ with who is doing the talking, but also whom they are talking to.
“When trying to influence someone of their same gender, leaders tend to use ‘softer’ influence tactics; conversely, leaders are known to use ‘harder’ influence tactics when they are trying to influence someone of the opposite sex,” Merchant wrote. “Overall, these gender differences across influence tactics help explain why gender differences in leadership styles exist, as one’s ability to influence his/her followers is a primary goal of any leader.”
Why Didn’t God Make Me a Man?
Nicole Unice, a teaching elder at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia, said she is part of a church staff that is primarily men. In a poignant blog post about discovering her calling to be a pastor, she began with the question, “If God wanted me to be a pastor, why didn’t he make me a man?” Eventually she concludes: “If God made me with these gifts and also made me a woman, He was the one who would work it out. And He did.”
“I definitely notice differences between men and women and the way they communicate and relate to others,” she said. Unice is typically direct and forthright, but she’s found that she tends to get push-back from male coworkers who perceive a direct statement as aggressive, even if she uses a soft tone of voice.
She finds herself looking for ways to soften what she says, while still stating the truth. “I hear myself saying in a meeting, ‘Now, this is just an idea, I’d love to know what you think about this . . .’ But if I am too direct, I don’t get heard.”
However, a lot depends on your leadership setting. Tracey Bianchi, the worship and teaching pastor at Christ Church Oak Brook, near Chicago, says she feels great freedom to speak her mind.
“Being collaborative is our default mode, our gut instinct,” she says of women. “But that’s okay, I think we are more likely to disarm tension by being collaborative. However, I do think if a woman leads with a caveat, saying things like ‘This is just an idea, I could be wrong’ that it can be easier for guys to shut her down. Women need to own their ideas.”
Bianchi says her senior pastor champions having both men and women in senior leadership positions and inviting their contributions. He’ll turn to her or other women in a meeting to ask their opinions, especially if “the last seven comments in a row have come from men in the room.”
About half the staff at Christ Church is female, Tracey said, noting, “I don’t ever hesitate to say what I want to say because I’m a girl. And sometimes, that also means tears. My female colleagues and I sometimes cry in meetings, but that’s okay.”
Bianchi jokes that the difference in men’s preaching and women’s is that the men use more sports analogies. She admits she tried at first to do the same. “I tried to tell a golf story, and I don’t even golf!” she laughs.
Now she feels more comfortable illustrating sermon points with stories of her real life about her children or friends. “Half the planet, and more than half the congregation, is women,” she says. “It’s only fair that they get some stories that work for women.” She loves being part of a teaching team so that the congregation gets to hear different perspectives and stories they can relate to, and adds that it helps the church to hear teaching from both genders.
Advice to Women Leaders
“Don’t change your leadership style to meet masculine expectations,” Bianchi said. “But make sure what you’re doing is good leadership. If you limit yourself, you’re going to limit what God wants to say through you. The team, the church, needs your collaborative edge, your insights.”
She believes women’s leadership style “invites collaboration and creativity,” and women should embrace the contribution they uniquely bring to the table. She also encourages women to be loving but bold. “In a loving way, don’t be afraid to call the guys out on stuff if you’re feeling really frustrated, if there’s a conflict,” she says. “There may be coworkers who will say (or imply) that you don’t belong here. But you need to act like you belong here. You’re there!”
“I tell the women I work with that they should lean into the innate relational intuitiveness that women have,” Unice said. Rather than simply stating what she’s intuiting, Nicole recommends using that insight to ask a question that will move the discussion forward.
She notes that women can often read emotional tension in a room more readily than men, and rather than name it in the moment, find ways to affirm and encourage people on the team later.
“Be observant,” she advises. “What brings positive change? You can be the person who brings encouragement and brings everyone’s best self forward.”
Keri Wyatt Kent is a writer, speaker, and author of more than 10 books. Learn more at keriwyattkent.com.