Speaking of Communication and Silence

By Barry Maher

Here’s a tip that a lot of us, myself included, seem to have trouble remembering:

When you have nothing to say, say nothing.

Particularly when we’re new in an organization or when we’re uncomfortable in a job or in a situation, there’s a tendency to want to speak up—to speak up for the sake of speaking up—especially in meetings. We feel if we keep our mouths shut, people will think we know little or nothing about the subject under discussion. If we actually do know little or nothing about it, the desire becomes especially strong. Get me around a bunch of guys at a construction site, and I can’t shut my mouth.

In communications training, we call this panic blathering.

The less you know, the more you want to interject something—anything—and usually what you interject proves just how little you actually do know. In an astonishingly short period of time, you can damage your credibility in a way that can take months and even years to repair.

Panic blathering.

I know it’s difficult, but when the impulse to panic blather seizes you, take a deep breath and think before you speak. Weigh your words carefully and contribute only when you have something worthy of contribution. A penetrating question—or even an admission of what you don’t know—is a greater sign of intelligence and even expertise than a transparent pretense of knowledge.

Tip: No matter who you are or how new or experienced you might be, if you don’t know, that’s usually the correct answer.

My father was an attorney and a man who had an answer for everything. Ask him to elucidate the difference between Einstein’s concept of special relativity and just ordinary run-of-the-mill, day-to-day relativity and he’d give you a 20 minutes oration: without having any more of a clue about any of it than you or me. But he was an excellent attorney, trained at Harvard Law, loved by his clients, and if you asked him a question concerning the law, the response could well be, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” is powerful expert testimony. It makes everything you do know that much more believable. If you know where to find the answer and you can promise to do so, even better. “Let me find out and I’ll get back to you on this by Friday—if that’s soon enough.” Then do it.

When Gary Ames was president of U.S. West, whenever he was addressing a group and got a tough question, he’d say something like, “Excellent question. While I generalize for the next thirty seconds, Jake Hanes who’s sitting out there in the back of the room, will be coming up with the correct answer. When I stop talking, Jake will give you all the specifics, because I don’t have the slightest idea.”

When Gary Ames told you what he did know, you believed him.

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