You are the Master of What you Don't Say

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Be the Master of What you Don’t Say

A wise man once told me “Be the master of what you don’t say because you will become the slave to what you do say.”

People talk too much and don’t listen enough.

My Lesson in Listening

When I was a young pup and in my first corporate headquarters assignment, the Executive VP of our division stopped by my little cube one day and said, “Wayne, write this down and carry it with you: you are the master of what you don’t say and the slave to what you do say. Choose carefully young man.”  And then he just turned and walked away.

I had never worked in a corporate headquarters environment, ever, and had spent the first 8 years in various field sales assignments. Apparently going from a field sales guy to the corporate world left me with behavior that was not translating very well.

For the next few weeks I would rarely speak. When I saw someone in the hallway, I would nod at them.  When I went to the corporate cafeteria, I would point at what I wanted to eat. When I sat in meetings, people would come up after the meeting and want to know if I was sick.  I would shake my head no.

After about a month of this self -inflicted terror, the EVP came back to my cube and said, “Okay now, that’s enough. Now start asking good questions.  No one really wants to know about how smart you are, all the ballyhoo from your days in sales, or about your hobbies. Stop talking and start really listening.“

He went on to tell me that what they need from me is to leverage my time in the field to get the programs developed that in the way the sales teams want them.  You can do that by asking really good questions and think about what the people in the field need to sell these programs. If you don’t have anything to add, don’t open your mouth and start rambling about things that are not helpful.  Keep your mouth shut unless you have something helpful to add.

Well that changed the course of my career. Right there things changed for me.

The Difference Listening Makes in Meetings

I started intensively observing how meetings and discussions were happening.  On the one end, there were meetings where everyone was talking over everyone and if you measured success by decisions getting made, then you would note that nothing was accomplished. There were no decisions. 

Highly productive meetings were well managed. They started with the objective stated in the beginning, gave everyone the facts, and were clear on what they wanted out of the meetings.  Then, the smartest people in the room would start asking insightful questions to move the conversation towards the objective of the meeting. The most insecure people would simply restate someone’s question or worse, try to say something smart. However, it was not smart, and instead, came off as self-serving.

In the well-managed meetings, everyone got better.  Everyone learned something from the great questions and the ones with the answers to the questions, not just some coffee-induced ramble about nothing.

How I Translated this Mindset to my Teams

About 10 years later when I was in a leadership position and started hiring people from the outside the company, I gave all of my new hires some similar advice about the benefits of listening. ( I considered my 2 years in that little cube, fresh from 8 years in the field, as an outsider being brought into a new company.) So I had clear direction for new employees.

Don’t talk about where you came from.  You can’t tell everyone all the great things you did at your former company.  Want to brag about where you went to school? No one really wants to know. Don’t talk about the house you just bought.  

Because this is how its comes off to other people: 

“Wow, Christina thinks we are dumb as a stump.” 

“She thinks she knows everything and has only been here one month”

“She told me how to do my project but does not have a clue!” 

“How much doe she make to afford that house?”

Normally, the new person is a chatterbox because they are just nervous and eager to help and jump in.  But instead of waiting until they have something helpful to say, they just start talking and it can cause distractions to the business. Worse, it can put the new employee in a little bit of a hole to dig out of early in their careers.  You know the saying about first impressions, right?

What questions should you ask?

Instead of the nervous ramble, the new employee just simply needs to ask questions like these:

“How do you make that happen?”

“Where do I get this information?” 

“Who  should I talk to get up to speed on this issue?”  

All good questions,  No chest pounding and no rambling about nothing.

After 90 days I tell them, it’s now okay have an opinion about something because you might actually have a good one. 

This might sound a little tough minded, over the top, or a leader over-managing an employee, but I was always, 100% of the time, very happy with the results and contributions of the new hire, and they always got on boarded faster that those who went the other direction.

Everyone should start listening, stop talking and now…..put down that phone or iPad.

Stay tuned for a future article on the benefits and necessities of looking up and not down all the time.