Knowing When Not to Talk is an Art
I read an article recently that piqued my interest. I can’t decide if I agree with it or not so I’ve decided that I will just ramble a while and see if I can figure out how this knowledge fits into my life. Do you ever find yourself doing that: finding a topic and then not being able to decide how you really feel about it? Let me explain by way of my thought process.
The article is about quiet people in meetings. The author, Tim Denning, opines that the person who speaks the most in meetings is the least smart and has the largest ego. He maintains that when you do decide that it’s time to speak, you should do so in the most concise manner possible. Use fewer words in less time, and then? Just be quiet.
Broad, Sweeping Generalization
The statement, “What ruins business is people that don’t listen,” is — while not grammatically correct — very true. People who don’t listen poorly impact the bottom line by not hearing either their staff or their boss or the customer. They are so concerned about what they’re going to say next, how they’re going to respond, that they fail to listen to the speaker fully, with the goal of understanding the speaker’s intent. People don’t fully listen.
“Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence.” ― Pythagoras
While I agree in principle with the author’s take on quiet people in meetings, I do think that it speaks to and about an audience of, specifically, men. Things are improving, but in our culture women are, too often, silenced in meetings. Or we’re talked over. So our silence in a meeting really isn’t very unusual. It is interesting that the article’s feature picture is that of Don Draper, Mad Man extraordinaire. Y’all can draw your own conclusions about that.
For example, I am fairly certain that I have never been accused of being the quiet one. In fact, when I’m quiet, people begin to worry. Or so I’m told. Ego did, indeed, play a role in my talkativeness in my less-experienced days, because I felt like I needed to prove myself to others, and had to work 100 times harder to be barely equal.
But let’s assume for a moment that ego is not at the core of the talkative person. Imposter syndrome can also cause compulsive talking. That feeling that I needed to prove myself to others because I didn’t feel qualified to be in the room wasn’t ego talking…it was survival. And then one day, the stars aligned and I realized that <gulp> I did not have to prove my knowledge to anyone. Look, some of us are slower on the uptake than others…#dontjudgeme. Introspection can be a beautiful thing. Now, while I might be the “smartest person in the room,” I don’t have to prove it to anyone — most of all myself.
On Being Keanu
Denning also wrote a different piece on the topic of quietness (do I sense a theme in his writing?), focusing on Keanu Reeves’ skill at intentional silence. This, of course, pushed me to re-watch some of Keanu’s interviews. I initially wondered if he was just stoned, but after reading Denning’s piece, I realized that if we want to be heard, we don’t talk louder. We talk softer. I remember learning this principle when my kids were growing up (and I envied parents who lived by this): if you want them to pay attention, talk softly. I believe today they call it Gentle Parenting. It’s also a lot less stressful for the parent.
Practicing quietness takes on a different look when we’re working remotely. It’s much easier to be quiet in meetings when we have a mute button and click “raise hand” when we want to be heard. This is fantastic for people like me who sometimes lack the ability to just hush. It also serves to enhance our listening skills. In this way, unlike at an in-person free-for-all where anyone can interrupt at any time, it helps us get a full picture of a situation before jumping all over the speaker. I, for one, am grateful for this tool. Being able to be quiet is hard for me (yes, you folks who know me can stop rolling your eyeballs now), yet I am SO much better off when I can be quiet.
When I *am* quiet, I think better. I am more creative. I have more clarity. I find that I listen to understand instead of to plan the next thing I want to say. I take notes and jot down questions, and if I wait long enough, most everything I need to know gets answered.
When we do finally speak, what we say is as important as how we say it. If we take a cue from Keanu, we strip away everything but the most important words. We say the things we really mean to say. We control the verbal fillers (um, uh, so, well, y’know, etc) and leave only the truth on the table. How distracting is it to listen to a speaker who’s filled 25% of their speaking time with fillers? When I took Speech 101 at university, the teacher would, of course, knock off points whenever a student used fillers. However, she never gave us tools to NOT do that…she only told us it was bad.
Never fear, dear readers, for I and I alone have the secret to eliminating filler words! C’mere…I’ll whisper it (so you’ll pay attention – see what I did there?)…embrace silence and take a breath. Yep, whenever you come to a point where you want to use “um, uh, or so,” take a breath or two. I know, this seems too simple – it can’t possibly work. But it is utterly remarkable how well this technique works. It causes you to speak a little slower, with better enunciation. For folks like me who tend to pack a LOT of words into a little bit of time, this can be game changing.
And here’s the super cool part…taking a breath or two helps both the speaker AND the listener. The speaker gets an extra moment to think about what the next most valuable word out of their mouth will be. And the listener gets a break in the cadence of the speaker, causing them to perk up and pay attention again. There is power in intentional silence.
“If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet…maybe we could understand something.” ― Federico Fellini
To test the influence of intentional silence, I challenge you to this activity: in your next meeting where you are expected to participate, choose silence. Pay attention to what’s being said, look people in the eye (or as best you can on Zoom), take notes, and be silently engaged. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say next, but really listen to what your colleagues are saying. And don’t open your mouth. Bite your tongue, drink water, chew on your lip, whatever it takes…just don’t say a thing. Since everyone is expecting your participation, your silence will be noticed. Wait until someone expressly asks you for input. When that happens, embrace your inner Keanu. Take a breath. Find the right words. Then speak. This is when your message will be fully heard.
This is hard. No, let me rephrase…this makes hard look easy. It’s a skill I’ve been trying to master, but all too frequently, fail at miserably. But it’s a goal. I watch my teammates and they are SO good at this. I’m kind of jealous to be honest. They’re modeling some great behaviors for me and I’m trying to embrace those behaviors myself. The mute button is definitely my assistant for this. And, sometimes, I even get it done without the mute button.
After all this rambling, the conclusion that I’ve come to is that I agree with Mr. Denning’s thoughts on remaining silent. But while he seems to see it as a way to manipulate others, I see it as a way to really pay attention to others. If everyone practiced this, we’d probably see a lot more listening and a lot less interrupting and talking over one another. There is no downside to that.
What are meetings like for you? Share your thoughts in our discussion group over in the JumpCloud Community.