Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking -- Job

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There are many women and men—but probably relatively more women—who are reluctant to put themselves forward in this way and who consequently risk not getting credit for their contributions. The CEO who based his decisions on the confidence level of speakers was articulating a value that is widely shared in U. Here again, many women are at a disadvantage. Studies show that women are more likely to downplay their certainty and men are more likely to minimize their doubts.

Psychologist Laurie Heatherington and her colleagues devised an ingenious experiment, which they reported in the journal Sex Roles Volume 29, They asked hundreds of incoming college students to predict what grades they would get in their first year. Some subjects were asked to make their predictions privately by writing them down and placing them in an envelope; others were asked to make their predictions publicly, in the presence of a researcher.

The results showed that more women than men predicted lower grades for themselves if they made their predictions publicly. If they made their predictions privately, the predictions were the same as those of the men—and the same as their actual grades. These habits with regard to appearing humble or confident result from the socialization of boys and girls by their peers in childhood play.

As adults, both women and men find these behaviors reinforced by the positive responses they get from friends and relatives who share the same norms. But the norms of behavior in the U. Although asking the right questions is one of the hallmarks of a good manager, how and when questions are asked can send unintended signals about competence and power. In a group, if only one person asks questions, he or she risks being seen as the only ignorant one. Furthermore, we judge others not only by how they speak but also by how they are spoken to.

The way boys are socialized makes them more likely to be aware of the underlying power dynamic by which a question asker can be seen in a one-down position. One practicing physician learned the hard way that any exchange of information can become the basis for judgments—or misjudgments—about competence.

During her training, she received a negative evaluation that she thought was unfair, so she asked her supervising physician for an explanation. He said that she knew less than her peers. Amazed at his answer, she asked how he had reached that conclusion. Along with cultural influences and individual personality, gender seems to play a role in whether and when people ask questions.

I explain that men often resist asking for directions because they are aware that it puts them in a one-down position and because they value the independence that comes with finding their way by themselves. Asking for directions while driving is only one instance—along with many others that researchers have examined—in which men seem less likely than women to ask questions. I believe this is because they are more attuned than women to the potential face-losing aspect of asking questions.

And men who believe that asking questions might reflect negatively on them may, in turn, be likely to form a negative opinion of others who ask questions in situations where they would not. Conversation is fundamentally ritual in the sense that we speak in ways our culture has conventionalized and expect certain types of responses.

Take greetings, for example. To Americans, How are you? Bob: Oh, not very well. Ritual apologies—like other conversational rituals—work well when both parties share the same assumptions about their use. Apologies tend to be regarded differently by men, who are more likely to focus on the status implications of exchanges. Many men avoid apologies because they see them as putting the speaker in a one-down position.


I observed with some amazement an encounter among several lawyers engaged in a negotiation over a speakerphone. At one point, the lawyer in whose office I was sitting accidentally elbowed the telephone and cut off the call.

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I knocked the phone with my elbow. One minute you were there; the next minute you were gone!

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For me, it was one of those pivotal moments when you realize that the world you live in is not the one everyone lives in and that the way you assume is the way to talk is really only one of many. Those who caution managers not to undermine their authority by apologizing are approaching interaction from the perspective of the power dynamic. In many cases, this strategy is effective. On the other hand, when I asked people what frustrated them in their jobs, one frequently voiced complaint was working with or for someone who refuses to apologize or admit fault.

In other words, accepting responsibility for errors and admitting mistakes may be an equally effective or superior strategy in some settings. Styles of giving feedback contain a ritual element that often is the cause for misunderstanding. Consider the following exchange: A manager had to tell her marketing director to rewrite a report. The impasse resulted from different linguistic styles. To the manager, it was natural to buffer the criticism by beginning with praise. Telling her subordinate that his report is inadequate and has to be rewritten puts him in a one-down position.

Praising him for the parts that are good is a ritualized way of saving face for him. Instead, he assumed that what she mentioned first was the main point and that what she brought up later was an afterthought. Those who expect feedback to come in the way the manager presented it would appreciate her tact and would regard a more blunt approach as unnecessarily callous.

Exchanging compliments is a common ritual, especially among women. A mismatch in expectations about this ritual left Susan, a manager in the human resources field, in a one-down position. She and her colleague Bill had both given presentations at a national conference. An unpleasant feeling of having been put down came over her. Somehow she had been positioned as the novice in need of his expert advice. Even worse, she had only herself to blame, since she had, after all, asked Bill what he thought of her talk. But had Susan asked for the response she received? In fact, her question had been an attempt to repair a ritual gone awry.

She was just talking automatically, but he either sincerely misunderstood the ritual simply took the opportunity to bask in the one-up position of critic. Although this exchange could have occurred between two men, it does not seem coincidental that it happened between a man and a woman. Linguist Janet Holmes discovered that women pay more compliments than men Anthropological Linguistics , Volume 28, In the social structure of the peer groups in which they grow up, boys are indeed looking for opportunities to put others down and take the one-up position for themselves.

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In contrast, one of the rituals girls learn is taking the one-down position but assuming that the other person will recognize the ritual nature of the self-denigration and pull them back up. If one person is trying to minimize status differences, maintain an appearance that everyone is equal, and save face for the other, while another person is trying to maintain the one-up position and avoid being positioned as one down, the person seeking the one-up position is likely to get it.

At the same time, the person who has not been expending any effort to avoid the one-down position is likely to end up in it. Because women are more likely to take or accept the role of advice seeker, men are more inclined to interpret a ritual question from a woman as a request for advice. Apologizing, mitigating criticism with praise, and exchanging compliments are rituals common among women that men often take literally. A ritual common among men that women often take literally is ritual opposition. A woman in communications told me she watched with distaste and distress as her office mate argued heatedly with another colleague about whose division should suffer budget cuts.

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  6. She was even more surprised, however, that a short time later they were as friendly as ever. Many Americans expect the discussion of ideas to be a ritual fight—that is, an exploration through verbal opposition. They present their own ideas in the most certain and absolute form they can, and wait to see if they are challenged.

    Being forced to defend an idea provides an opportunity to test it. This style can work well if everyone shares it, but those unaccustomed to it are likely to miss its ritual nature. They may give up an idea that is challenged, taking the objections as an indication that the idea was a poor one. Worse, they may take the opposition as a personal attack and may find it impossible to do their best in a contentious environment. People unaccustomed to this style may hedge when stating their ideas in order to fend off potential attacks. Ironically, this posture makes their arguments appear weak and is more likely to invite attack from pugnacious colleagues than to fend it off.

    Ritual opposition can even play a role in who gets hired. Some consulting firms that recruit graduates from the top business schools use a confrontational interviewing technique. Those who are uncomfortable with verbal opposition—women or men—run the risk of seeming insecure about their ideas. Anyone who is uncomfortable with this linguistic style—and that includes some men as well as many women—risks appearing insecure about his or her ideas. In organizations, formal authority comes from the position one holds.

    She loves chat shows! Adjectives This is a variation on the above activity and is great for practising adjectives. Procedure Write a selection of adjectives relating to feelings on the board. Tell students to choose several adjectives increase or decrease the number depending on how long you want the activity to take. Give students time to plan what they are going to say.

    They can make notes and ask for vocabulary if they want to. Students tell their stories. Feedback to the class. Cartoons, cartoon stories and unusual pictures There are many copyright-free comic strips, cartoons and unusual images available online; you can also find cartoon stories in many EFL resource books. Information gap activity: Order the story Information gap and jigsaw tasks have been shown to be beneficial task types in terms of promoting obligatory, as opposed to optional, information exchange and as a way of promoting collaborative dialogue in the classroom.

    Procedure Before the class, find a cartoon with at least four vignettes. The cartoon can be with or without dialogue. The more vignettes and more elements in the story, the more difficult the task. Print the cartoon and cut up the vignettes. Put students into pairs and divide the vignettes equally between student A and student B.

    Give students time to think about how to describe their pictures and ask for any vocabulary they need. In my picture there is I can see After that Tell students to work together to put the story in the correct order. Optional extension: Tell students to write the story. If there is dialogue or captions, blank it out.