I happened to be at an unusual event where the primary speaker had laryngitis. As a frequent sufferer myself, I felt a lot of compassion for him. But his ailment served as an interesting object lesson and reminder for me, and perhaps it will be useful for you too.
Those of us who work in the knowledge world — either as executives, consultants, salespeople, teachers or the like–spend a lot of time talking. We are frequently answering questions, but more often explaining, orating, pitching, directing and so forth. It’s easy to understand why, after all our work and our value stems from the knowledge and expertise we bring to a situation. If we are advisers of some kind we are expected to provide wisdom and guidance. And it seems like that requires us to say something. The same for teachers, who deliver information or data to us. And most salespeople spend a lot of time delivering presentations about the goods or services they sell, trying to demonstrate the value their offerings have to their prospective customers.
Well, when I was at this odd event in which I could barely hear the speaker, I noticed something unique about how the entire room and audience changed. Usually, at an event of this sort, almost everyone there would be only partially attending to the presentation. We are easily distracted and are abetted in our lack of attentiveness by our portable computers — our cell phones. So when you look out at an audience, usually they all have phone in hand, and many of them are looking down and multi-tasking. But this was different. In the near silence and the quiet of the speaker’s voice, all of us — hundreds of us– were forced to concentrate on what was being said. We had no choice, because the presentation we were trying to hear was at very low volume and the speaking itself was halting because of the lost vocal strength. As a result, there was a noticeable silence and concentration in the entire hall. People were leaning forward and keenly attuned to the words being spoken. Their cell phones were stowed, their ringers turned off and their attention was focused.
As I left the event, I lurked around small clusters of other attendees to hear their comments to each other. It occurred to me to do this because I, myself, had been transfixed by the speech and had heard so much more than I usually do when I attend a similar event. Not only had I heard more, but I had understood more and gained a great deal more in value than I typically do. As I listened to the other folks around me, I heard similar comments. “The speech was great!” “Did you catch how what he said about this might be applied to this other realm?” “It really made me think about this other thing in my life”. And so forth. So much value wrought from this one presentation. Why was that?
This strange episode made me think about talking and listening. And about the volume at which we speak – whether actual decibels or the manner of our speaking. When we speak less, and less fervently, we invite the curiosity of our audience or interlocutor. And only in that moment of genuine curiosity will they find value in what we say. Perhaps more importantly, there is so much we can gain and accomplish when we shift our focus from speaking and presenting to learning and listening. One of the struggles in training salespeople is to impress on them how much less talking they should do than listening. And I think the same can be said for all of us, even when it seems on the surface like our jobs require more rather than less talking. And for verbal, opinionated people — which is most of us in these professions — it takes actual discipline to alter the proportion of talking and listening. It’s hard to keep one’s mouth shut when sure that our contribution is valuable. The trick is to alter the stance and mindset from which we listen. If we are listening so as to respond, we are on the edge of our seat with our words at the tip of our tongue. And we are listening the way we scan the Internet — for key words and phrases. But when we take on the stance of a genuinely curious observer, someone engaged to learn and discover, our own urge to say something recedes. Instead, we are prompted by our curiosity to ask open-ended questions and explore the speaker’s thoughts more deeply.
This applies not just to how much we speak but to how we speak. When our words are emphatic and conclusive, however smart they may be, they can stop the conversation in its tracks. People are not prompted to say more when a definitive statement has been made. If the goal is to generate connection, relationship or even eventual business, then keeping the conversation alive and verdant may be a better plan. And to do that we need not only speak less, but speak less fervently. Opinions can be framed as genuine questions. Or they needn’t be offered at all. Yes, we are all burning to offer our opinion — and to show our smartness. But it backfires in almost every case. Better to be curious, inquisitive and moderate in your comments. In the silence between your comments, what will emerge is a deeper connection and far more value for both you and others in the conversation.
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