Why Leaders Should Take A Break From Talking

Last month, a long stint of nonstop traveling combined with numerous speaking engagements and a nasty cold finally caught up with me. Every time I spoke for more than a few minutes, I would start coughing and lose my voice. After a few visits to the doctor, I learned that I had damaged my vocal cords. My treatment was a series of vocal building lessons and, for a period of time, a directive to speak less.

I was encouraged to adopt an entire week of silence, which honestly proved a bit too much for me to manage. However, I had no choice but to reduce my words significantly. I promised myself that, for a week, I would speak 75% less.”Hah!” my friends and colleagues joked. The guy with so much to say would need to shut up and listen a bit more. “This should be interesting!”

I promised myself that, for a week, I would speak 75% less.

I accepted my predicament not only as a treatment but also as an experiment. What if, 9 times out of 10, I held back my comment? What if I forced myself to listen more? And what if I took more time to ponder what I heard rather than react to it?It’s an age-old adage: You learn more when you listen than when you talk. But not speaking is about a lot more than listening. I began to watch people more closely. And I began to question some of my own assumptions about collaboration and daily living.

Here are a few insights worth sharing:

1. Watching is as important as listening.

When you are trying to understand those around you, just listening to someone’s words is not enough. Body language provides valuable clues for meaning and intention. I once sat through a (rather strange) negotiation workshop led by a former CIA agent. Half the workshop was about non-verbal cues such as “grooming gestures,” like adjusting clothes or eyeglasses, as well as other actions like cleaning your surroundings or moving objects while speaking. The facilitator made the point that half the information we get in a discussion is visual, but we’re often too busy listening and thinking to watch. Rather than thinking of what to say next, take a moment to consider what you see.

2. Lead with questions, not answers.

During my week of semi-silence, I found myself asking more questions than normal. They’re shorter than statements, and after posing a question you get to sit back and listen (or think). Questions, it turns out, are a powerful way to lead discussion. At Harvard Business School, the professors use the “case method” to teach students. Prior to class, students read a case study about a particular company. And then, at the start of every class, the professor poses a question along the lines of “what would you do?” As students start to answer the question and disagree with one another, the professor simply keeps asking questions to help steward the discussion. 95% of the speaking (and teaching) is done by fellow students. At your next meeting, experiment with posing questions rather than statements.

Questions, it turns out, are a powerful way to lead discussion.

3. Pace yourself and acknowledge others.

Sometimes waiting to respond – and taking a prolonged pause – will work wonders. There is a brilliant movie from the ’70s called Being There. In the movie, the main character is a very simple, illiterate man who becomes world famous without ever saying anything more than a few basic words. Miraculously, he would elicit a deep level of engagement and intrigue with everyone he met by simply listening and acknowledging. Often, when someone would speak to him, he would take a long pause and smile. The person would then continue to speak, often answering their own question; then, he would look the person straight in the eye, and say a sincere “thank you.” With a dose of patience and acknowledgement, the world seemed to fall into place around him.

In the real world, we all get anxious about projects we care about. We like to respond to opportunities quickly, and resolve problems immediately. But perhaps there are times when we should restrain ourselves. In a negotiation or debate, maybe we should wait rather than respond right away. As they say, “good things come to those who wait.” The solution may reveal itself if you give it a chance.

4. Embrace setbacks as learning opportunities.

Alas, my voice has strengthened and I am now able to speak more liberally. But I am trying to carry on (and share) my lessons learned the hard way. Hence, this article. Periods of distress are inevitable. The only part of misfortune that we have control over is what we take away from it. The greatest opportunity for self-improvement is a moment of adversity followed by the willingness to absorb the lesson. Every development team in technology knows this all too well. (They call it “iterating.”) But it is also true for people. When it’s your turn, soak it up. And if you’re willing to share, I’m all ears.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you ever tried enduring a period of silence, or just focused on listening more? What happened?

More insights on: Leadership

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making ideas Happen.
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