Shutting up

Shutting up is a power move. Better: an empowering move. If you can get out of your own head for long enough to shut up and listen to the other person, amazing things happen.

Version 1: The ramble. Agree to listen for ten minutes with a neutral expression and without responding or giving feedback, even afterwards. You can make notes for topics to explore later, but taking the possibility of responding off the table gives the other person space that they know you won’t step on. Here’s how this conversation went for me recently:

    “I’d like to try a new technique today. You talk for ten minutes and I just listen without responding.”

    “What would I talk about?”

    “Whatever’s on your mind, preferably work-related.”

    “For ten minutes? I don’t know…”

    “What I love about this technique is that it takes the pressure off both sides. If you need more time to formulate a thought, you know that I won’t be jumping in. And it means I’m actively listening to you instead of trying to figure out what to say in response.”

    “Well, okay. …” And they talked for ten minutes about career goals, what’s happening in their team and what concerns they have for the future, about self-organization and what they were trying out.

Version 2: Support. Learn to see when someone wants to say something, even if they’re not totally committed to doing it yet, and help them to do it. Do this by picking up on subtle cues such as: they lean forward a bit, furrow their brow, slightly open their mouth, tilt their head. In meetings with multiple people, especially when there are plenty of other more prolific talkers, I’ll address this lightly with, “Maren, you look like you’re thinking, do you have something to add?” In a one-on-one meeting, just waiting a little longer than is usual instead of immediately filling the space with your own words can have the same result.

Aside: I had a boss who would drop big news on me out of the blue and then say, "You don't look happy about this." Dude! It's my thinking face; give me a minute to process! It felt very much like the cliché of telling me, a woman, to smile. I finally called him on it, I was done. And the next time he said it I held up my hand and went all schoolteacher, "Tch tch tch! What did we say about commenting on my face?" I'm a bit embarrassed that I used that tone on my boss, but it did work.

Version 3: Negotiating. Make your argument, state your position, and then shut up. This leaves the other person with the impression that you know what you’re doing and expect a reasonable response. Especially when nervous, people tend to fill the silence, which has several disadvantages. It can distract the other person from actually considering your core statement because they are still listening to see if you are saying anything else which is relevant. If you are nervous, you may end up backtracking and shooting yourself in the foot: “…but really it’s ok if you can’t make this happen, I know the company had a hard year last year.” No! Don’t do this to yourself.

Aside: It may feel silly, but when you are planning to ask for something I strongly encourage finding someone to help you roleplay out several ways the scenario could go.

And always keep in mind: silence is not the enemy. It can be excruciating to sit in uncomfortable silence with another person. But who’s making it uncomfortable? Is the other person doing that all on their own? Or are you reading a tightness into the quiet that isn’t there at all?

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