Strategy

Leadership: Just shut the hell up

A little less conversation could lead to a lot more communication.

The chatterbox rebuffs your every attempt at a graceful exit. You smile and nod, tap your toes and check your watch for the third time, but resistance is futile. Whether it’s a long-winded boss or the office gossipmonger, every workplace has its share of people who can’t — or won’t — stop talking. A sense of decorum or a reluctance to make waves may keep beleaguered listeners from piping up, but nobody’s ever anxious to tell the boss to put a sock in it.

You might even be that oblivious blabbermouth, says Mike Staver, author of Do You Know How to Shut Up? And 51 Other Life Lessons That Will Make You Uncomfortable. If you ever catch yourself repeating things, noticing that others aren’t clear about your message, or wandering around in “an abyss of verbiage and have no point,” says Staver, chances are you need to shut up.

Poor communication is commonly identified as a major problem at many organizations, but too often the fault is laid on the listeners, not the speakers, says Ron Crossland, co-author of The Leader’s Voice. Crossland says leaders have to connect emotionally to be effective communicators. If they behave too aloof, any rapport with their employees breaks down. That means they must make a point and read the signals to see whether the listener got the message. “The myth is that people want more communication,” says Crossland. “What they don’t want is more of the same kind. They want better quality communication.”

It’s not hard to do, says Staver. For one thing, never overload the listener with information. Figure out what you want to communicate, stay on point, wrap up the message — for example, by referring to next steps — and ask for feedback. An ego check is certainly in order, too, but nervous talkers frequently natter on to avoid awkward silences, resulting in an even more awkward situation where both parties feel trapped.

Drone on too long, and people start tuning out, even if you have good ideas to contribute. Stop talking when you have nothing more to add and you’ll gradually become comfortable with silence. Silence can be used to your advantage, says Staver, making you a better communicator, and a more powerful negotiator.

Find yourself on the receiving end of an endless monologue? Be direct, but tactful. Staver suggests deftly cutting in to ask for clarification on a specific point. “We’ve been taught that it’s rude to interrupt,” he says. “But if you don’t interrupt, it’s not likely you’ll get a word in.”

Beyond a petty annoyance and a waste of time, a barrage of superfluous words could also be a symptom of muddled thinking. Talking less forces people to express themselves more efficiently, so they have to grasp the heart of their ideas before trying to convey it to others. How does Staver, a professional speaker, walk his talk? “I just try to say more with fewer words.” Enough said.