2012 Series 006 – Communication

The Power of Shutting Up

I once attended a business dinner where one of the participants is an expert in a particular type of business, whom I was looking forward to learn from. To my horror, another participant sitting close to us has the uncanny ability to answer questions not directed at him. This participant did not have work experience on the business (I asked) yet he continued to answers questions about the business, and when the expert finally had the chance to talk, this other participant doesn’t seem particularly interested. What could have been a chance to learn something, was wasted.

My chance was wasted because this other participant didn’t want to shut up.

But this other’s participant’s chance is even more wasted because he is carrying that inability to shut up wherever he goes.

But I too find myself guilty of the same inability to shut up.

I fail to properly listen to questions, either by not listening or by mentally preparing an answer even before the question is finished. Which resulted in my inability to provide a direct and solid answer, which if repeatedly continued, could cost me future opportunities.

  1. The value of being silent

In communicating among team members, the ability to shut up is an important but often a neglected skill.

Shutting up, being silent, is important because it precedes and allow another skill, listening.

Without listening, there’s no exchange of meaning.

A team’s effectiveness and efficiency is related to how effective and efficient the team is in exchanging meaning.

Mistakes are avoided, relevant information is stated, and decisions are made when team members exchange meaning.

Off-course, being effective and efficient in exchanging meaning could also result in team members being good and fast in being mean.

Other factors are important for a constructive exchange of meaning among team members, things like knowledge, expertise, self-control, psychological security, and maturity, but without listening, and the prerequisite of shutting up, an exchange of meaning is impossible.


II.4 level of silence

We most often associate shutting up with the physical act of not speaking when others are speaking. This physical act of not speaking is the first level of silence.

The 2nd type of failure to shut up occurs when the mouth closes, but the mind speaks.

For example, attendees of seminar are prone to severely distracted by the voices they make inside their head. Very few seminar attendees talk when the speakers speak, but many are busy speaking in their heads, thinking about where to have lunch, errands to do, or some other stuff.

In effect, although their mouth doesn’t speak, such attendees fail to listen to the speaker, because their mind is not silent.

The 3rd type of non-silence is the one I’m often guilty off, although my mouth doesn’t speak and my mind is focused on subject at hand, my mind is also bent on forming an response, an answer, or rebuke, to the subject. My mouth doesn’t speak when the other person talk, but I’m not shutting up. I did not provide a clean slate for other people’s question or thought to land on, and thus, I failed to properly capture what they had asked or said.

The last type of non-silence is when our preconception or prejudices prevent us from being humble enough to listen. When the other party speaks, we close our mouth, we focused our mind, we provide a clean slate, but when a foreign idea land on that clean slate, thorns of preconception pops out and expelled the foreign idea. With this 4th type of non-silence, meaning failed to be exchanged.

III. Being silent requires effort

The 4 level of silence mentioned above requires effort.

Effort to control both external and internal distractions.

In this era of ubiquitous connectivity, we are constantly presented with external distractions. Even in a closed room, the blinking light of your blackberry could prompt you to speak up in your mind as you wonder whose bbm just might that be waiting for you.

In a way, external distractions are easy to sort out. In the blinking blackberry example above, continuously looking at the light would cause uncomfortable attention from your conversation partner, which could prompt you to get back on track.

But internal distraction, since it is unknown to other parties, is harder to discern and to dispel. Even worse, the gamut of internal distraction is wide, who knows what one’s could be thinking, or feeling, as he/she engaged in a conversation.

The best way to control internal distractions is by delaying specific activities, which by the way, are related to specific type of silence.

Delay speaking: physical silence

Delay thinking: consciously focus our mind on what the other party are saying, and prevent our own thoughts from polluting our ability to listen

Delay forming an opinion or an answer: prevent answers from forming in our mind, when it seems to appear, dispel it. Ask your selves to wait. Be patient.

Delay preconception and prejudices: prevent our existing knowledge and preferences from expelling foreign or even hostile question or ideas. Be humble to accept that what we know and prefer could be wrong. Have the integrity to want to understand truth, even if the ideas presented on the way to truth is not comfortable.

By controlling the external and internal distractions through delaying the 4 activities, we remain silent, we are ready to listen, and we increase our ability to respond well.

Silent, Listen, Think, Respond.

Effective exchange of meaning among team members begins with shutting up.


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