If you want anything in your professional life - to be heard in meetings, win that promotion, earn respect, right a wrong - the way to do it is raise your voice. At least, that's what we're most commonly told. Make your mark now by speaking up - and it better be loud. Conversely, we're fed the fear that staying quiet will knock us out of the game.
Certainly speaking up makes sense in many contexts. But there's something to be said for silence, judiciously employed. Here's when - and why - smart leaders hold their tongues.
When you don't have anything useful to contribute. Ever been in a meeting at the end of a useful discussion? Sure, we all have. But then we go around the room to make sure everyone's had their chance to contribute. "Ben, do you have anything to add?" NO! Ben has nothing to add. Nothing. But instead, he says, "Nah, it's all been covered.......(pause)....but I did just want to say (insert restated part of the discussion here)." Got nothing of value to add? That's cool. Say that so we can all get out of the meeting and on to doing real work.
When you don't know what you're talking about. Not sure what's going on? On a new team and eager to leave an impression? It's so tempting to jump in and say something smart and memorable. But you lack context. You don't know the players. The dynamics are unclear. You're a visitor to a foreign country and you don't yet know the customs. So ask the occasional intelligent question, but otherwise simply pay attention. Your thoughtful silence will show that you know the smart approach to a new situation is observation - which will make the words you do speak all the more powerful.
When you want to read the room. As a leader, you can sometimes get some interesting information by observing while another person runs the meeting. You'll see how your team interacts - are they collegial, confrontational, respectful, dysfunctional? You'll get a sense of who's really solid on their information or ideas - and who's BSing. You'll hear what's left unsaid - and then be able to draw some interesting conclusions.
When you want to learn more. It's an old journalist's trick: staying quiet because when silence stretches out, people feel the need to fill it up. Often what they say is quite revealing. It's useful in negotiations with vendors, when you're giving someone a chance to admit an error or misdeed, when you're trying to get a sense of who someone is, or catch someone in a lie. Silence can be a way to amp up the pressure and see what results.
When you should keep a confidence. Often we're trusted with people's confidences in the workplace - a situation with an employee, a troubling family issue, tension with a manager. Knowledge truly is power and some of us can't resist trading on the currency of privately shared information. Don't. Likewise, don't speculate or gossip. It's not kind or classy - and it's definitely not a mark of great leadership.
How does listening more than you speak work for you?