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Symmetry And Asymmetry – How Women And Men Are Different

To be successful in the business world, it is important to understand the different dynamics in communication that play a crucial role in the workplace. One such concept is symmetrical and asymmetrical communication. A balance of power that is characterised between two interlocutors, respectively a communication as an expression of a power imbalance.

A groundbreaking theory

Deborah Tannen's theory on symmetry and asymmetry was first published in 1990 in her book You Just Don't Understand. In it, she explains that men tend to have asymmetrical conversations when communicating, while women prefer a symmetrical approach.

A simple analogy: men tend to take a 'report talk' approach, where both parties take turns to share information about their day or experiences and report back to each other. Women, on the other hand, tend to take a 'rapport talk' approach, where the focus is on building a connection through shared emotions and experiences.

In order to better understand the communication dynamics especially between men and women in the world of work, it is important for leaders to be aware of this concept of symmetry and asymmetry. It is particularly advisable for both genders to address this in order to facilitate productive dialogue and greater equality.

What is symmetrical communication?

Symmetrical communication is characterised by a balance of power between two interlocutors. This means that both parties are equally able to make decisions and assert their opinions without one party feeling more powerful than the other. In symmetrical communication, both parties must take the other's views into account and strive for a mutually beneficial outcome. This type of communication is often found among friends or peers, as an equal distribution of power promotes a more relaxed atmosphere in which feelings can be shared openly. In the workplace, this symmetrical communication can improve relationships between colleagues and lead to better collaboration on projects.

As already indicated, the majority of women tend towards a symmetrical culture of conversation. It allows for more personal expression and connection to the other person. For women leaders, symmetrical communication provides a platform for a more indirect form of contribution, without fear of judgement or criticism and without putting themselves first. Indeed, by creating a symmetrical dialogue, they are able to voice their concerns and perspectives without feeling intimidated or undermined. This allows them to bring meaningful ideas and insights to the conversation, which fosters a collaborative environment that promotes mutual respect and understanding.

What is asymmetric communication?

Asymmetric communication on the other hand, is when one person has more power than the other, or at least tries to claim this power through the way they communicate and behave. This type of communication leads to a hierarchical relationship in which one party is usually in charge while the other listens and follows instructions or advice. In the workplace, this vertical communication is more common between managers and their subordinates as it allows for clear instruction with less opportunity for misinterpretation or confusion. This form of communication, however, creates a clear power imbalance in the relationship.

Quite different from women, asymmetric conversations are much more common among men because they see it as a way to establish hierarchy and dominance in certain groups.

Which language prevails in the conflict?

The discrepancy between horizontal and vertical communication can have an enormous impact, especially in conflict situations. It is therefore of utmost importance for female leaders to understand what this scope consists of. It can be very difficult for them to express their opinions and make decisions when they are in a asymmetrical environment where there is an imbalance of power. The power imbalance caused by the asymmetrical communication style can lead to women quickly feeling blindsided and not taken seriously, even personally attacked, by their male colleagues, which can seriously affect the effectiveness of their leadership work.

When a female leader tries to «manage» an asymmetrical «attack» - in the sense of an interruption of words, sexist remark, derogatory comment or inappropriate female joke - with typically symmetrical means, injustices and personal injuries are pre-programmed. This happens mainly because our respective ways of communicating tend to follow certain habitual patterns. We tend to act less strategically under stress. Our way of communicating succumbs much more to a trained reflex. And that can lead to a lot of misunderstandings because we then interpret events from different perspectives without pausing for a moment. The reflex then corresponds to the typical behaviour pattern of the respective language system to which one belongs.

The asymmetrical leader understands, knows and feels particularly comfortable in the language of symmetry. Which in consequence means that in this system things are interpreted from the perspective of equality, solidarity and bonding. And therefore this system figuratively says: people are equal and feel equally close to each other.

The asymmetrical leader, on the other hand, tends to interpret everything through a hierarchical filter and therefore cannot make sense of why people have a problem with political power games. The essential element of status is asymmetry and that is why this system figuratively says: people are not equal, they are placed differently in a hierarchy.

These linguistic differences therefore inevitably lead to different ways of reacting to certain conflict situations. It would make much more sense if both sides were familiar with the other language. The decisive factor is the ability to switch between these two systems according to the situation. Modern leaders need to be able to recognise when symmetrical conversations are necessary and when it may be more beneficial to take an asymmetrical approach instead. Deborah Tannen writes about this in her book You Just Don't Understand:

« ... Both women and men would do well to adopt strategies typically used by members of the opposite sex - not to switch entirely, but to have more strategies at their disposal.»

Which of the two language systems is desirable?

Since most of us only know and feel safe in our socialised language milieu, it tends to be difficult to make this switch at the decisive moment and to get out of the comfort zone of our own language habit in order to switch from the symmetrical to the asymmetrical language and vice versa where necessary.

It is clear that symmetrical language has a very important value and is a need for many people, especially female leaders. This is because it allows for greater empathy between participants, as the views of each individual are respected and taken into account in joint decision-making. Symmetrical language also helps women leaders build better relationships with their colleagues by allowing them to show their vulnerability and build trust. It also allows them to show their commitment and willingness to constructively engage in conversations that can lead to positive outcomes for all parties.

But asymmetrical language also has its special value and is a need for just as many people, especially male leaders. It too has its advantages in certain situations. It would therefore be presumptuous to place one form of language above the other. Both systems are needed. But no matter which language system one belongs to, what each of us must realise is this:

The more I strive to fulfil my need for equality, the more I simultaneously and involuntarily violate the need of those who strive for hierarchy. The more I strive to fulfil my need for hierarchy, the more I simultaneously and involuntarily violate the need of those who strive for equality. Once this is understood, it becomes easy to see how closeness and distance in communication automatically go hand in hand with attachment and status.

It is a closed relationship loop. It is a communication dynamic from which none of us can break out. Not participating in this dynamic is not an option. We can only learn to deal with it situationally. And the more I know about these dynamics, the greater my chance of successfully moving between both worlds.

Like everything in life, these two language systems have their own particular disadvantages. Weighing these disadvantages against each other can be an additional help to put the "glorification" of one's own language system into perspective a little and thus bring in a more sober way of looking at things. But more on this in this article: Passive aggressiveness at the workplace.

Constant training and continuous education

So this means that for women leaders to be effective, to gain respect and to be heard, they need to be constantly aware of these symmetrical and asymmetrical dynamics in conversations. This includes understanding the power imbalance between two interlocutors and paying attention to non-verbal signals and behaviour. In addition, it is important to recognise subtle signs of dominance in their conversations so that they can ensure that their opinion is not overshadowed by that of a male interlocutor, if necessary.

Both communication systems have their advantages and disadvantages, as already mentioned. However, those who master both languages have a clear advantage in any case.

This is where I start with my seminars and offer female leaders the opportunity to train this special switch in a practical way. So that women in leadership do not get paralysed in an emergency, where they are speechless, feel embarrassed, taken by surprise, insulted or not taken seriously. These trainings aim to give women more options on what to do in a conflict with a man in a business context in order to maintain their sovereignty and at the same time demonstrate their assertiveness.


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