You have probably read before about encouraging words that top leaders say every day, motivating phrases, and famous quotes of the greatest leaders.
But please bear in mind that great leaders also need to be wise when it comes to the opposite strategy: very often, the smartest thing to say is nothing at all.
We aren’t just talking about the straightforward advice our mothers gave us about keeping our mouth shut if we don’t have anything nice to say. Instead, we are thinking of the big moments when people come close to achieving goals, accomplishing great things, encouraging others to greatness, developing key relationships. Sometimes, a simple slip of the tongue can set people back and destroy all they’ve worked for.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about negotiations, investigations, or plain old conversations. In the interest of preventing us from wishing that our mouths had been on ‘mute,’ here are several examples of times when the sounds of silence are better than the noise of words.
When you’ve asked a question
We all know these people. They ask questions but can’t wait for you to finish so they can offer their own viewpoint. Sometimes they don’t even bother waiting but instead try to hustle you along with verbal cues: “uh-huh, uh-huh, right, right, right…” When they asked for advice, what they really meant was, “Let’s fast-forward to the part where I tell you what I think.” Don’t be like these people. You can observe a lot by watching, and you can also learn a lot by listening. Why ask, if you don’t want an answer?
When you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.
Silence is awkward. As a result, people often rush to fill it. Just as we can (quite easily) tell when someone is blubbering and fumbling along, others can tell when we are. If you have something intelligent and thoughtful to add to a conversation, go for it. Otherwise, consider this advice: we do not ever have to fill a silence, especially when we don’t have anything useful or valuable to fill it with.
When you need someone else to get the credit
As President Harry Truman once said, you can accomplish just about anything if you don’t care who gets the credit. Sometimes that means staying quiet just long enough for someone else to think of your solution and propose it as his own. There’s no need to be ‘right’ all the time, and there’s no need to always get the credit.
When you are bragging as opposed to sharing
This brings to mind those parents who go on and on about their little Johnny’s perfect math grades, Kung Fu award, and gorgeous new haircut. They are not so much ‘sharing’ as ‘bragging’ about their wonderful child! This one also brings social media to mind. Go on Facebook, for example, and sometimes it seems as if everyone is eating well, taking amazing vacations, running marathons, and enjoying storybook relationships. Is all of this about social sharing or social bragging? If you find you’re leaning toward the latter with the things you talk about, maybe it’s time to be quiet.
When your comment is more about you than the other person
Suppose your colleague is excited for her plans for the weekend. You catch yourself ready to tell her about a better place than what she’s planned or why she should take her trip on another weekend, maybe when the weather is better, when the traffic will be less hectic, or when she’ll have fewer competing commitments. That’s really nice of you, as long as you’re sure your comments are truly intended to improve her experience or offer good advice. If there’s a chance you’re commenting out of jealousy or pride, or wanting to steer the conversation toward yourself and your recent holiday, maybe you’d be better off ‘zipping it.’
When you want someone else to grow
This is a similar point to when you want someone else to get the credit for a good idea. If you have a second grader in your family, chances are you could do his homework for him without much effort. But what would be the point? You want him to learn and grow, which means he has to be the one to come to the answers and conclusions on his own. The same thing is true in many other circumstances. Instead of leaping forward to answer a question that you know the answer to, sometimes it makes sense to hold back and let others figure it out.
When you are clearly boring people
Many people have it, regardless on their nationality – the Irish gift of gab. We enjoy telling stories, sometimes over and over and over. But don’t get so lost in your own story that you forget you have an audience. Most of us can tell when we’re holding court for an audience that simply couldn’t care less. In that case, cut it short, wrap things up, and stop talking.
When you begin a speech
Here’s an interesting one: whenever you give a speech, try to start out with a long, somewhat uncomfortable pause. Doing so puts the audience ill at ease for a moment and gets them rooting for you. They worry that you’ve lost your notes or that you’re about to keel over from a panic attack. (Everyone knows how stressful giving a speech is!) That way, when you start talking, you’ll have many of them on your side, happy that you haven’t made them witness an embarrassing meltdown.