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Big Ideas

Why Leaders Should Take A Break From Talking

You needn’t talk all the time just because you’ve got wonderful things to say. We break down the oft-overlooked benefits of leading by listening.

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 Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (28)
  • 55 Hi's

    This is such a Catch 22 cause I completely agree (especially when you are in a position of power within an organization) because it’s easy to just govern conversation. However, from the viewpoint of a recent hire, I must vouch for the squeaky wheel gets the oil. People who speak more, are noticed more.

  • Dave

    I like the saying, “You’ve got one mouth and two ears, they should be used in the same proportion”

  • Somavijay

    Dear Scott,

    I have an observation on the picture used in the beginning this article , The picture conveys 2 meanings
    1. Listening is greater than speaking ( > greather than symbol)
    2. Move from Listening to Speaking ( > this symbol also used as arrow mark right?)

    Hope this helps 🙂

  • K-eM

    I agree 100% with your statement that watching is just as important as listening.
    • When you have 2 people in dispute, it’s critical since you can often spot the liar (if there is one) by watching, but rarely by listening.
    • You can also improve your customer service by watching. Body language says so much more than words in sales situations.

  • 99U

    Interesting observation, Somavijay! Option 1 was what our illustrator intended, which is why the “greater than” sign is a bit more open than the standard keystroke arrow.

  • mattstillman

    Another interesting aspect of listening instead of speaking that I have experienced is being aware of inner speech. I have found in prolonged periods of not speaking that I can actually hear my mind commenting on every single thing. Not even judging per se but it must say something about everything. Normally there is outer speech to distract us but it is the equivalent to turning off the lights and your hearing gets more fine tuned.

    The point of this observation is that the space to really listen has to be arrived at. But not speaking is just the start of that. Eventually the running commentary has to go to really feel the power of silence.

    Once the mind has been made still, a person gets in communication with every person one meets. He does not need too many words, when the glance meets he understands. Two persons may talk and discuss their whole life and they will not understand one another; and two persons with still minds look at one another in one moment there is a communication. Where comes the difference between persons? It is by their activity. And when comes agreement? It comes by the stillness of mind.

  • Alex H.

    Thank you for this good sets of comments. I could not agree more and it looks alot like this article comes right on time for New Year’s resolution!

  • Maicon Sobczak

    As knowledge in these lines … We were so engrossed in our projects and ideas that we often forget the importance of listening.

  • Joe McCarthy

    In December 2004, I attended (and later wrote about) Warrior Monk, a spiritual and soulful retreat, which included a combination of meditation, poetry reading and writing, chanting, singing and dancing, all designed to encourage mindfulness and intentionality. I had a bad case of laryngitis that started the day before the 4-day residential workshop began, and was unable to talk at all during the first two days. While the retreat included periods of “essential silence”, there were several open discussion segments during I was forced to be uncharacteristically silent.

    Perhaps it was due to the focus on mindfulness and intentionality in the workshop, but I found myself becoming more aware of the inner speech that mattstillman mentioned in his comment. The silence offered me an opportunity to recognize that much of what I would have said, with the intention of benefiting others, was really about me.

    A few years later, after reading The Four Agreements, and reflecting on (and writing about) the 2nd Agreement (Don’t Take Anything Personally: Commenting on Commenting), I was able to recognize the prevalence of this pattern in all my output. It seems that everything I say (or write) is primarily about me, or for my own benefit. My words may also be of benefit to those who hear (or read), but being more mindful of the self-reflective and/or self-serving nature of my communication helps me be more willing to more willing to forego some opportunities to jump in to a conversation … though not willing to forego all opportunities, as is clearly shown in my self-reflective and self-serving observations in this comment.

  • Danuta Antas

    Scott, I am particularly pleased that you wrote this article.For some reasons. Since childhood, I have always been a watching, then listening and then speaking person. Where watching was my 99% of my participation:), or to be more precise watching and thinking:)
    I sometimes thought that it is something wrong with me, as people talk so much. But it is truly enlightening to observe rather than talk. In the course of time and after similar retreat as Joe mentioned, I have acquired such the ability that lets me learn a lot about a person just after their body movement and energy they emanate. Strange as it may seem, but now I do understand people much better even when they do not speak much:)
    Your article is really invaluable, especially because we all live in the time of too much talking, both in reality and on the Internet. People do not value words they say. Thank you for your words of wisdom:) Greetings, Danka

  • vanzari auto online

    I do not think it is the right position.

  • Denise W. Barreto

    Great post! I adopted a “Less Words” way of life a few years back and I often have to remember why. Thanks for the reminder

  • Greg Jessiman

    Fantastic article Scott.

    I can certainly admit to having been too solution oriented in the past. Before getting to really knowing what a client or colleague required, I’d have already pieced together solutions based on a simple meeting request. Apart from being dis-respectful it’s also an incredible waste of time and energy, something which could have been applied to other tasks. I had essentially failed to listen.

    Today we are pretty much seen as solution specialists, and the will to succeed, and please often results in us developing solutions to problems we know almost nothing about, solutions built on assumptions as opposed to facts and reality. The end result being unsatisfied clients saying “you gave us what we asked for, but not what we wanted”.

    The power of listening is greatly underestimated in business today, perhaps a side effect of the increasing expectation for faster execution? People seem less concerned with reasoning and listening, they simply want the solution. Budget constraints are also forcing to favour generic solutions over those which would actually deliver the results our clients require.

    My boss established and enforces the mantra U.B.B.U. which stands for Understand.Before.Being Understood. Employing this daily has enabled us to deliver significantly better products and solutions to clients, whilst enabling us to perform and work better as a team.

  • Investor Boot Camp Online

    Good suggestions, thanks.

  • Serge K. Akwei

    Great speech 🙂

  • Khalid Mokhtarzada

    Absolutely great post. I know I talk a lot, being in the position that I’m in doesn’t help. Whenever I get a sore throat I feel that’s God’s way of telling me to shut the heck up. 🙂

    “He who asks the questions, controls the conversation”

    Again, great article.

  • Design Oxigen

    awesome post i really need that one 😛 because this is the exact problem i am facing i talk too much to just get a quick solution or just for telling my co workers that what is exactly my requirement. thanks

    Naveed Anjum

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  • Joyanna Anthony, Idea Lady

    Thanks for the reminder. Deep listening is key. For me if I need to take a talking break, I know it’s time to really go inside and listen. Did you know that the stomach has a real brain (as does the heart) check out:
    So when I have that gut feeling, it’s really the brain inside my stomach directing me.

  • Venkat

    This article reminds me of what I went through. I remember when i was in college, I use to listen a lot and speak less, many professors use to identify me as ‘the boy who listens completely’. That was the time when listening was enough for me than taking notes as all my consciousness was with the speaker. Later when I came into IT, I started to talk a lot, and then I started to talk inside me when others are talking. The worst thing I realised was, talking inside is difficult to stop which ignored what the other person was talking. My mind talked as if there is no tomorrow and I need to speak out my ideas immediately. It took some time for me to understand the different between hearing and listening and took some self-discipline and training to really listen to what the other person is says. .

  • Arjen Lentz

    Fabulous post, thank you – and actually a good challenge for me!

  • Guest

    I had a co-worker that vowed for complete silence for a week. It made working with her tricky, but we used Instant Messenger and emails to make up for communication. It was interesting because her replies and body language were much more sincere and positive than usual during this week. Something we should all consider doing. Maybe not to this extreme (that would make things complicated!), but to cut back on our words like you did.

  • Baby Clothes

     This is really a best stuff that you have shared over here, i am so glad to know this all tips that you have shred over here, So thanks for sharing this exclusive tips with us.

  • Ralph Lauren Kids

    These all points that you have described over here are really inspiring for us, I accepted my predicament not only as a treatment but also as an experiment. so we all have to suggested some points about this topic. 

  • Alexander Tiedemann

    This is a must-read of leaders. This is a prevalent problem in most of
    leaders nowadays. They tend to talk too much and fail to listen to their
    members. Leader should be the last person to speak in a group.  😀

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