Business Q & A

5 questions with Esther Headley, president, Research Partnership

Men and women differ dramatically when it comes to nonverbal communication, said Esther Headley, president of the Research Partnership, a national marketing research consulting firm.

Body language speaks volumes, said Headley, who has researched the differences.

“What we do with our facial expressions, the way we hold our body and what we do is a very important part of the communication process,” Headley said.

Each gender can borrow from the other to be good nonverbal communicators, Headley said.

Headley will be speaking about the topic at 8 a.m. Sept. 23 at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Sunrise Scrambler at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, the opening event at the Exposure business-to-business trade show.

Headley, 60, became interested in nonverbal communication 20 or 30 years ago and started doing research.

“I’ve been a female operating in a male-dominated environment all of my career,” Headley said.

Thirty years ago, most of the firm’s clients were men. Often they mistook her for her partner’s secretary rather than his equal.

“I found out very quickly as a female I had to develop characteristics and presentation styles that come across powerfully to make it in a man’s world,” she said.

Things have changed over the years, and more women are coming into power and making decisions.

“It’s been kind of fun watching that change,” Headley said.

Headley founded the Research Partnership with Wichita State University marketing professor Bob Ross in 1982. She also teaches at WSU.

Last year, Headley was named 2009 Marketer of the Year by the Wichita American Marketing Association.

1. So what’s the biggest difference between men and women in their nonverbal communication?

“Men, through their masculinity . . . give off cues of dominance, high status and power, and the reason is they take up more space with their bodies. Women, because of their femininity, have a tendency to give off cues of submissiveness, low status and subordination.”

2. Why is that?

“We don’t mean to. It’s through our socialization process as men and women that we learn these cues.”

3. Can you give an example?

“Women who are tall, if they are talking to a superior male, especially, they’ll have a tendency to feel like (they) shouldn’t be taller or more powerful than their superior.

“They’ll cross their legs and go into a ballet stance, so they’ll sink a little bit so they’re not as tall. Or they may tuck their chin when they’re talking so they don’t appear taller than a superior male. When they do that, they have to look through their lashes and that comes across as even more flirtatious.”

4. So what should she do?

“She should take up more space with her body and stand up straight. Use good voice tone, good eye contact and contact in a more powerful way. . . . I’ve seen female attorneys use terrible body language. . . . They would have been so much more powerful within the court system if they would have borrowed some of those more powerful cues from the men.”

5. How can men and women help one another?

“Women can borrow (cues) from men to be more powerful communicators. Some men may borrow cues from the women to maybe soften their communication style.”