A few months ago I taught a workshop to young girls attending a March Break camp. It was all about giving girls ages 9-12 the confidence they need to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated tech roles. Sounds like my kind of thing right?
I decided I wanted to teach them about a communication theory from the early 80s. It’s called Genderlect Theory and it was developed by a linguist named Deborah Tannen. Actually, I was going to teach them a re-framed version of the theory because it’s from the 80s and presents a really narrow idea of communication styles as male-female. I settled on:
Connection Communication Style and Competition Communication Style.*
You can guess that the original was female communication style and male communication style, right?
I walked into the room and immediately noticed that I would be teaching 6 strong personalities, and all of them were people of color. Now I was the white lady in the room teaching a communication workshop to black and brown girls. Can we see how this can go wrong?
I started the workshop by setting the rules:
- You are in charge of you.
- This is a practice space – which means we’re going to make mistakes.
- “Hold up, wait a minute!” – you can step away from something but you have to come back eventually.
We then covered the concept of intention. Why do we speak? We speak because we want something. Because we want to be heard, we want to ask a question, we want to share something, etc. As a group we listed all sorts of reasons why we speak. Then I asked them why other people speak. The thing I love about this age group is that they only over-think a little. It took very little time for them to admit that other people speak for the same reasons, but I could tell this was getting some wheels turning.
Then we went over two different ways people communicate.
Connection and Competition.
- Connection is about sharing stories, making and deepening links, being seen for who you really are, asking questions, etc.
- Competition is about being heard (quite literally, being the loudest or talking the most), winning, taking up space, and planning or organizing.
Something clicked for them. A few of them have older or younger brothers, all of them interact with people at school, but every one of them suddenly realized that they had someone in their lives who just talked over them to win. One of them even told us a story about how her youngest brother would just make nonsense sounds until she stopped talking sometimes and how it made her feel.
We talked about how one style isn’t necessarily better than the other, but both have their uses. The problem is when people can’t recognize or move between styles in order to have the conversation they need. It sucks when you’re a person who defaults to connection style and you run into someone who defaults to competition style. That’s basically what mansplaining is, except without the gendered overtones. Perhaps you’re also realizing that there are people in your life who talk just to be heard? The girls would’ve been happy to tell me about their encounters for the rest of the day, but I had some exercises I wanted them to try.
We played a few games where we exercised our communication skills. Simple ones like pairing up and learning to identify connection or competition, practicing competing conversation (giving them something simple to argue over like the best color or vegetable), and interrupting or pulling the conversation away from each other. The connection communication styles came more naturally to the group, in fact, it was somewhat difficult to get them to compete at all.
Finally came the discussion portion. I asked:
“How do you connect with someone who is competing with you?”
It didn’t take long for them to realize that it was a trick question. One of them finally said “You can’t, because they’re trying to win, they don’t want to connect with you.” Bingo. We decided to reword the question, as a group we came up with “How do you handle someone who is trying to compete with you?”
If you’ve ever tried to get a group of kids to pay attention to you, you might already know the answer to this.
Sometimes the game is so painfully obvious it’ll make your head spin. Sometimes the game is far more complex. The game can be to talk the loudest or the longest. The game can be to get the most laughs. It can be to zing! someone. Sometimes you don’t even need to know what the game is, you can win it just by gaining control of the conversation and changing the rules.
I gave them some of my favorite secret weapons for handling a serial competitor. We also explored some body-language tools for taking back control of a conversation.
Communication is complex.
We do it for many reasons. While the desire to win a conversation may be alien to you, it’s a very real drive for many people. When talking about subjects like white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism or systemic inequalities, sometimes there’s a need for someone to win or lose the conversation, but often there’s a need for connection and listening. My first piece of advice in any conversation is to ask yourself: “Is this person connecting with me, or competing with me?” It completely changes the way you approach that conversation.
If it’s a competition you can decide whether or not it’s a game you have the time or the energy to play. If it’s a connection you can decide whether or not to deepen it.
Once you know what they’re doing, ask yourself what you want out of the conversation. Sometimes we get sucked into these talks and we don’t even know why!
If you want to be heard, you have to be loud.
You’re going to have to read their intentions and morals and play their game in order to get them to see you. When you can be heard you can make the game about connection and being real.
This is going to come up all the time in conversation, especially social justice conversation. Some of us take our connection habits into those spaces and we try so hard to be a part of it that we forget to stand up. Some of us take our competitive habits into those spaces and we try to be the best at social justice – the most educated, the most well spoken. It’s important for us to know how we behave in these spaces. As a white woman I have to be conscious of the space I take up. I am responsible for my communication. It’s up to me to be aware of when I’m competing with someone, or when I’m trying to connect with them. (It’s also up to me to back off when someone isn’t inviting connection. Because that can be smothering).
Both communication styles have their strengths and weaknesses. Which one do you default to and which one do you need to practice?
*This is one of many communication theories. I like it as an introductory model because it’s simple but you can take it a long way.
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Also published on Medium.