Knowing When to Speak and When to Listen

When to Speak

As leaders, when is it important to speak up? When do we need to listen? Some of the biggest problems we create in our lives involves the proper use of our speech. Speaking when we shouldn't, and not speaking when we should, can create major issues in our communication. Ironically, we can get in just as much trouble and hurt others by what we don't say as opposed to what we do say. The question of, "Why did you say that?" versus "Why didn't you say something?" can be just as difficult.

Regardless of our personality type, many leaders tend to "speak first and ask questions later." I have a good friend and colleague whose wife jokingly tells him, "When it comes to your mouth, your method is usually ready, fire, aim." We all can run into this problem if we're not careful.

I was speaking recently with a client about a meeting she was in where people inside their organization were clearing the air on some conflicts. She said the one employee in the room who everyone knew had the most issues with the staff, and consistently mouthed off, was the quietest during the meeting. He avoided the very opportunity to try to resolve issues when his opinion could matter the most.

So, what causes us to speak up when we shouldn't? Why do we need to listen more than we speak? Here are three thoughts for this ongoing battle in all of us:

  1. Listen More Than We Speak: Not hear more but listen more. Hearing someone speak and listening to what they say are two very different things. Active listening is a skill that we must constantly work on, especially in our very noisy culture. For introverts, this means taking in what is said and then being proactive to respond. For extroverts, this means taking a pause to hear someone out, and then responding after the other person has had a chance to share their perspective. As an extrovert, this is something I am constantly working on. I tend to think as I speak and process things quickly when solving problems. When I take the time to actively listen to others, I have found that we get to practical solutions quicker.

  2. Make Your Words Count: Not count your words, but make them count. When you speak, know that your words matter to you and the other person. Many of us need to cut out the clutter we build around what we truly need to say. Some of the leaders I work with have challenges with rambling on and not being short, clear, and succinct. We can all work on reducing the preamble speech before we deliver the real point. Wise leaders know when to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. One of the primary ways we can count someone as being a strong leader is because of what they say, how they say it, and the timing and power of their chosen words.

  3. Check for Alignment and Agreement: The words we speak are important. It's just as important to ensure our audience understands our point of view. I've seen it time and time again when a leader will go on a rant and miss out of the opportunity to connect with their audience. They lose the crowd and miss out on the chance to captivate their people. When you engage in conversation with others, stop and pause along the way. Ask if what you are saying makes sense. Take questions. Pull people into the dialogue and conversation. This will make for a more robust discussion and allow people feel valued and important.

Regardless of our age, personality, background, and life circumstances, we can all change our communication for the better. It takes work. You have to be committed to improving your listening and communication strategies. Great leaders continually grow in what they say, what they don't say, and how intently they listen to others. Make sure you take time this year to reflect on the impact you want to have on others. It is important to know when to speak and when to listen. If you do this, you'll get your team on the same page and achieve great things in 2021.

Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D. is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

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