Are You Improving Upon the Silence?

Posted 11.14.2023

One of the most powerful quotes I’ve ever read has stuck with me for years. It’s from Robert Greenleaf in his book, Servant Leadership, where he wrote, “The most difficult question to ask oneself is, ‘Does what I have to say improve upon the silence?’”

The fact of the matter is that a lot of people in leadership roles talk too much. The impact of that is multi-faceted. Leaders who talk too much:

  • Create needless churn in their organizations as folks scramble to turn their random musings into unintended actions.
  • Create a dependency in the people they lead that can look like learned helplessness.
  • Don’t leave space to learn from the people they lead.

If you’re a senior leader and are seeing one or more of these dynamics at play in your organization, there’s a good chance you’re talking too much. Here are three things you can do to get in the habit of talking less and listening more:

Use the seven second delay: Broadcasters often use a seven second delay during live events so they can bleep out words or moments that shouldn’t go out over the air. You can use the same principle in meetings and conversations. If you’re feeling the urge to talk, count to seven and see what happens. You’ll likely create the space for someone else to share their thoughts. You may conclude that what you wanted to say wasn’t that important in the first place. Or you may conclude that it’s worth saying. Either way, it’s worth the wait.

Keep score: Set yourself up to see your own talk patterns and those of others in your meetings by keeping score on who’s using the most airtime. It’s simple to do. When a meeting starts, write down in your notes the names of everyone in it and when someone talks put a hash mark by their name. And it’s not just them; make sure you put a hash mark by your name when you talk.  Pretty soon, you’ll have a visual record of who’s talking the most. If it’s you, consider being quiet for a while. If it’s other people, ask the silent ones what they think and get more voices into the conversation.

Ask more questions: A proven way to talk less and get others to talk more is to ask good questions. The best questions are open ended and usually start with the word what. They’re the kind that get people thinking and engaging. When you ask them, they develop people by helping them to think critically and solve their own problems. I recently shared a list of good questions in this post on how to lead with Socratic questions. In your meetings this week, work on shifting your statements to questions ratio.

What about you? What strategies have worked for you in talking less and listening more? Share your tips in a comment on LinkedIn or please send me an email.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.