Communication: Four occasions when it’s best to keep quiet

American actor Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

I think he has a point. Rarely, though, do we consider that effective communication also means keeping quiet. Nothing can be more effective in reaching understanding than a well-placed pause, a time when we step back and listen, not only to others but also to ourselves.

It’s a discipline I think all leaders need to develop.  But first we have to be able to readily recognise when we are talking too much and listening too little and, as a result, eroding the depth and importance of our conversations.

So when might that happen to you? Well, I can think of a few occasions when it might and here they are:

When you’re angry 

(Subtext: I’m mad so I’m going to vent all over you so that I can feel better.)

Anger sometimes compels us to put the mouth in gear before the brain has had time to process what’s going on. And that can make a bad situation worse.

Being on the receiving end of someone’s flare-up is also very off-putting and a sure-fire way of shutting down lines of communication altogether.

When you’re tempted to say any old thing to fill a void 

(Subtext: I’m uncomfortable so I’m going to say something because somebody has to!)

Silence can be cringe-worthy. For instance, in a meeting you put an idea up for discussion; you ask for some thoughts … and nothing happens. But, if you start talking just to relieve the tension, chances are, you are missing an opportunity to hear from someone who simply needs a little time to process the information before sharing his or her opinion. So, tolerating pauses, pregnant or otherwise, is a very positive discipline to develop.

When you’re convinced of your ‘rightness’ 

(Subtext: I’m right and I’m going to keep on talking until you agree with me.)

Sometimes we can fall in love with our own ideas so much that we make no space for the possibility that we may be wrong. Clinging to a position and arguing its virtues can be great fun but if we are not willing to listen to others’ perspectives and soften the edges of our views in the face of new information, we become a roadblock to progress.

When you realise you don’t really know what you’re talking about

(Subtext: I’m lost but I’ll look like a fool if I stop talking now.)

Every once in a while I will embark on a line of conversation… and then lose the thread. Instead of stopping to get refocused, I keep talking in the hope that eventually I’ll get to the point. I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this. When it happens, it’s embarrassing but frankly so is taking people on a meander that you didn’t intend. As for me, I find it helps to simply stop mid-ramble, and admit that I have no idea where I was going. We all have a laugh and get to move on to something more productive.

There is, of course, a common theme running through the occasions I’ve described. Each of them is a self-indulgent response.  In communication, as in leadership, self-indulgence will get in the way of success every time.

That’s what I think, anyway.  What do you think? 


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