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Shut up and communicate

Why speaking is overrated and the best way to communicate is to keep your mouth shut.

If your mouth is open, you're not learning” The Buddha

In one of the most effective presentations I ever saw, the speaker began, “Look, I’ve prepared a deck, but you’ve all chosen to be here so you obviously have things you want to hear about.” He then spent 10 mins inviting questions and noting them in a list, which he used as an impromptu structure for his talk, dipping into his slides only as they seemed relevant. Instead of a typical, predictable, slide-heavy presentation, we were treated to a lively, spontaneous conversation.

It was a masterful example of one of the most important tips I’d give to any communicator, one that happens to be both the simplest and most difficult: shut your mouth and listen. Really, listen. Put down that gadget, notepad and paper. Stop fidgeting, tapping your finger, twirling that thumbring. Instead, tune in and really listen to what people are actually saying. Doing so can make us masters of what Steven Covey called “the single most important principle of interpersonal relationships: Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

Sounds easy, right? And yet, when we think about communicating with other people, most of us tend to focus on our own message. Too often, if we’re not speaking we’re deep inside our own internal dialogue, scanning for what we expect to hear, trying to butt in or planning for when it’s our turn. Our schooling and careers fuel that tendency. We spend years learning to read, write and speak, and any communications training is likely to be an advanced version of the same: public speaking, business writing, presenting, negotiating, influencing, assertiveness, and so on. All these are about expression and domination, not communication.

Effective communications, in contrast, goes two ways. It’s conversation in pursuit of relationship. Imagine chatting with someone who controls the discussion, showing barely any interest in your opinion. How healthy will that relationship be, how long will it last? And yet so few of us spend serious time developing our listening skills. When was the last time you even heard of a colleague going on a listening course?

Such courses tend to feature a variation of many micro-techniques, usually bracketed into a catchy formula: “Listen like a leader”, “5 levels of listening”, “Ten Top Tips of Smart Listening”. There is certainly value in much of that advice (if you can remember it in time of need). But for me, there is no better, rooted formula than that given by one of Steven Covey’s greatest influences, holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.

When working on my own listening, this is the place I always come back to: the space between stimulus and response. I remind myself regularly when in conversation to hold back on that thought, idea or question. I’ve lived long enough to get over the shock that the world can likely manage a few more seconds without me trying to solve its problems. Instead, I’ve found that it’s worth allowing a natural pause to stretch out a little. The other speaker may surprise you (and themselves) by sharing more of their thoughts and feelings. They may even come up with great ideas and solutions themselves. If my experience is anything to go by, it’s amazing how highly regarded you can be as a great communicator. All by keeping your mouth shut.


Photo credit: Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels

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