We’ve all heard it often enough — being a good listener is as important a skill as being a good communicator. My experience has shown this to be true, but also taught me that intentional silence is an acquired skill.
A number of years ago I was honored to work with a prominent attorney who happened to represent a number of my clients. We got to know each other fairly well on a professional level and from time to time had the opportunity to swap tales about the lessons we’d learned along the way. One in particular will stay with me forever; ‘He who speaks first loses!’
He shared that with me drawing on his years of negotiating experience but I have found it to be of great value beyond that, especially if softened by intentional silence. Silence can be awkward. Many of us, by our nature, have a need to fill a void. Ask a colleague a question and if an answer isn’t forthcoming many of us will expand or rephrase the question to fill the void.
A few years later, I sat together with the same attorney and his client at a speaker phone as he negotiated a potential business transaction with the other party’s attorney. The call was long, detailed and at a few times contentious. Eventually we came to an impasse and there was silence. We muted our speaker phone, chatted with each other about a few things and then went about our little habits of making notes, flipping through papers and the like.
I don’t remember exactly but what was likely only about 20 minutes of silence seemed like an eternity. Pressed by a tight schedule, frustration or some other factor, our attorney unmuted the speaker phone and asked…‘are you still there?’ The attorney at the other end responded ‘yes, is there something you wanted to say?’ Ouch – he who speaks first…game over! We never got the deal.
And from my personal library of things I wish I could do over – when president of a manufacturing company the plant manager came to my office and reported that a machinist, known to be aggressive, had crossed the line and stripped a gauge from a machine and then thrown it the full length of the tool room. I agreed with the plant manager that this was the final straw in marginal behavior and that the machinist, ‘Dave,’ should be fired. The plant manager left with his marching orders.
Less than an hour later he was back in my office to let me know he had real concerns about confronting Dave. I told him not to worry; I would come down after lunch and take care of it and I did just that. I walked over to the machine where Dave was working and said ‘shut it down.’ He did and then, knowing why I was there said, ‘I just want to know why?’ Major mistake on my part, with the adrenalin flowing I answered, ‘attitude!’
I walked Dave out of the plant to the relief of all watching, escorted him to his car and told him never to step foot on the property again. The next morning I found that my office window had a bullet through it – now lodged in the ceiling. My major mistake was the lack of intentional silence. I was so eager to put it to Dave that I failed to calculate an appropriate response to his question of ‘why.’ By telling him he was being fired for ‘attitude’ instead of destruction of property or endangering another employee he qualified for unemployment insurance and that stuck in my craw for years after.
Essential listening skills are easily compromised if one is compelled to fill the void or can’t overcome the temptation to convey his/her own thoughts at the first opening. Lessons learned; sometimes he who speaks first loses.
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