Knowing When to STOP Talking

Usually I work with people to find the best verbal strategy, approach or delivery to get through to their audience and get to “Yes.” Today I want to focus on the exact opposite skill set: knowing when and how to stop talking.

Ironically, for many people that’s the hardest part. If you’re like me, at some point or other you’ve had the “out-of-body experience” where you’re in a high-pressure situation, and as you catch yourself rambling on, your brain is screaming, “for heaven’s sake, just stop talking already!” But you’re on a verbal runaway train and can’t seem to jump off.

Part of the reason this happens is because Americans in general and American corporate culture in particular are notoriously uncomfortable with silence in conversation. Silence quickly slides into the category of “awkward silence” for most people, and is felt as something to be avoided. This helps to explain the compulsion many people have to fill silence at all costs.

In the vast majority of these occurrences, self-doubt is a huge factor. Even if you were confident up to that point, something triggers a sudden insecurity – consciously or subconsciously, which you telegraph through your rambling.

With that in mind, let’s look at three contexts in which this situation is likely to emerge, why, and how to get it back under control, so you can steer the train safely and successfully into the station.

The most common scenario is when you’ve asked a question or made a comment, and the other person doesn’t respond right away. Your subconscious then assumes that they didn’t understand what you’ve said, or panics that they did understand it, but didn’t like it and don’t want to answer it. So you rephrase, or qualify, or offer possible answers to your own question, until they finally jump in and give a concrete response.

In reality, sometimes people just need a moment to digest what you’ve said. The more technical it is, the more important it is, the more processing time they need. Be generous in allowing them time to think, uninterrupted, before they respond.

The second context is when you think you need to keep explaining something. Perhaps your topic is complicated and you are speaking to non-experts so you think more details and examples will be helpful. Alternatively, you might be speaking to people who are experts, which can be intimidating, so you feel compelled to share every data point to demonstrate the extent of your knowledge and how hard you’ve worked on the project. Or you might be speaking to a very high-stakes audience, and interpret their silence as disapproval, at which point you keep talking in attempt to qualify or justify your argument and persuade them to agree with you.

Ironically, however, in these situations, the more you talk, the more it will either overwhelm and confuse the non-expert, or dissuade your audience because the rambling sounds nervous and uncertain rather than confident. In these cases, make your point, then just hold your ground – and your tongue. This signals to them that you expect a response, and it’s their turn to break the silence. If necessary, calmly ask them if they are confused by something, or would like an example or further clarification. Knowing when to stop is a sign of confidence.

Finally, rambling often occurs when you need to answer a question or offer a response, and don’t feel like you have time to think it through before you are expected to speak. The pressure is on, and each second of silence feels like an hour as all eyes are on you. But rather than taking the listeners on a stream of consciousness journey with you as you try to figure out what you really want to say, try prefacing with something like, “That’s a great question; let me think about the best way to answer it concisely.” Who would deny that request, especially if the alternative is a rambling mess?

Here’s a final tip: Write a note to remind yourself not to fall into these traps, and look at it before you enter the next high stakes meeting. If you wait until you catch yourself mid-ramble, it’s too late. You’ve gone down the rabbit hole, and there’s no easy way back. Priming yourself with these reminders before you start is one of the best ways to project persuasive confidence and leadership.

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Do you hold yourself back from success?

“Whenever I’m in a meeting and I think of a question or comment, I end up arguing with myself about whether or not to say it… then five minutes later someone else says what I’m thinking, and it leads to a great discussion. I could kick myself when that happens!”

This is a challenge described by many of my clients, both men and women alike, and it stems from a lack of confidence on a variety of possible levels. But regardless of the origin, the outcome is the same: you hold yourself back from being recognized for your insights, expertise and overall value to the team.

So why does this happen, and what can you do about it?

The late, great sales guru, Zig Ziglar, had a great saying that has stuck with me from the first time I read it in one of his books many years ago. He said that you have to ask yourself, “Is your fear of failure greater than your desire to succeed?”

That hit me right between the eyes.

The short answer is that, for people who typically hold back as described above, their default answer, often subconsciously, is a resounding “YES.” That’s why they hold back.

At times, we all have doubts, and frankly there are some people who could stand to filter their thoughts and hold back a bit more from time to time instead of blurting out everything that comes to mind. But that’s an issue for another post.

What is most powerful to me is the thought process you inevitably go through if you actually ask yourself that question when you find yourself holding back. And if you’re someone who holds back more often than not, you need to do it. That’s because it actually leads to two deeper and more concrete questions to help you regain confidence and take action:

The first is, how would you define “failure” in that situation, and what’s the worst thing that could happen if you did “fail”? Does failure mean that people ignored what you said because they thought it wasn’t important? Maybe it means you could make a mistake, share wrong information or demonstrate ignorance. And what would be the repercussions of one of those situations? I highly doubt that you could lose your job, be removed from the project or account, get chastised in pubic, take a major hit to your reputation, or die of embarrassment. More likely, the worst that would happen is that you might get corrected in public. You’ve certainly heard others make contributions that were not received with open arms; what happened to them? Most likely, nothing.

The second key question is, how would you define “success” in the same context? Of course, you wouldn’t expect the boss to throw a party or give you an immediate raise; success could be simply a matter of knowing you made a valuable contribution to the discussion. Maybe your idea provides a critical piece that will help the group to problem-solve more efficiently. What is certain, in the success context, is that you show yourself to be a valuable, proactive member of a team, and it might put you on someone’s radar, in the good way.

Also, remember that those best and worst case scenarios are based on you actually speaking up. A third question that gets overlooked is, “What is the effect of silence on my part?” Again, holding back judiciously from time to time is probably appreciated by most people. But when your reputation in those meetings is of someone who is non-participatory, playing it “safe” and hiding in self-defense mode unless forced to speak, is that really the leadership image you want to create?

And just in case you were about to play the “introvert” card, stop right there. That excuse won’t work. Introversion is not about fear of public speaking, confidence or general shyness. It’s about how you get energized, and what takes energy from you. Don’t mistake being an introvert – assuming you genuinely are one – with being hesitant to ask a question or offer a comment in a team meeting.

So the next time you recognize that you are holding back, do two things: First, decide what you want your leadership reputation to be. Then ask yourself: “Is my fear of failure greater than my desire to succeed?”

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply the solutions, or how to help others overcome these challenges? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Is positive feedback harder to give than negative feedback?

I’m sure you’re familiar with that unpleasant feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize you have to give someone negative feedback. You don’t want any drama and you try to avoid conflict. You don’t want to hurt their feelings or anger them. You don’t want them to get defensive and you don’t want to have to defend yourself in the process, but eventually you have to find a way to tell them that there are errors in the report and it needs to be redone, that they’ve been late for the third time, or that the promotion is being given to someone else.

While it may not be surprising that, according to a recent HBR study, 21% of people will avoid giving negative feedback to direct reports, the same study revealed that 37% of people also don’t give positive feedback! At that point, the question becomes: Is it actually harder to give praise than critique?

The article proposes a variety of reasons why people often don’t give positivefeedback, ranging from being “too busy” and forgetting, to feeling like a boss should be tough, or that giving praise was a sign of weakness. Some people may consciously or subconsciously believe that it’s essential to point out mistakes in order to avoid or fix major problems, but that positive recognition is optional and/or not important.

Most intriguing to me, however, was the idea that some people don’t give positive feedback because they don’t know how. So from here, let’s look at three simple strategies for giving clear and effective positive feedback.

1. K.I.S.S.
No, I’m not suggesting you do anything that will warrant a call from HR. Most of you are probably familiar with the age-old acronym K.I.S.S., or “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Praise doesn’t need to be emotional, gushy, effusive or melodramatic. People just like to know – especially from you “tough graders” out there – that they have met your standards, produced high-quality work, or been successful at completing a difficult project on time and under budget.

Most importantly, they probably already know this, but want to know that you recognize that effort or achievement. They know you will catch any mistake; make it equally clear that you watch like a hawk to “catch” them succeeding, too. It shows solidarity, lets them know that you’re on the same team, and promotes a sense of confidence and security, knowing that the boss is looking out for them.

At that point, simple comments like, “Thanks for getting that piece back to me so quickly,” “The layout looks terrific, nice job,” or “Looks like you got everything back up to date, much better” are all that is needed to let people know where they stand. It also provides a sense of closure, which helps keep them from worrying that there may be more bad news to come, so they can comfortably shift their full attention to the next task on the list.

2. Be Specific
Praise is much more powerful when it references something specific. Generic comments like “good job,” while better than nothing, don’t tell the person what it is that you like about it, and can often feel perfunctory and insincere. Does it pertain to the speed in which they completed the job? The depth of analysis? Or just the fact that they closed the deal? Whatever it is, referencing that factor helps them to understand what is most important to you and encourages them to focus future efforts on achieving similar outcomes.

Even if it is just following up on something for which you had previously given negative feedback, acknowledge that the specific problem was fixed to appropriate standards and what positive outcome it promotes, e.g., “This new layout is much cleaner, and the image really pops; the client is going to love it.”

3. Look in the Mirror

If you’re really stuck for how to give praise, ask yourself, if you had done that work, how would you want to be appreciated? Maybe, to the HBR article’s point, you’re not used to giving positive feedback as a boss because you aren’t used to getting it from a boss. I’m not saying your boss should have thrown a party every time you did your job successfully, but think back to a time when you felt like at least a little appreciation would have been nice. Be the boss you wish you’d had, and offer the word of praise that would have been meaningful to you.

Sometimes the best place to start is with a simple word of thanks and recognition of the other person’s effort. “Thanks for pushing through the last week of late nights to make sure we got the issue out on time, I’m sure everyone’s exhausted,” or “Thanks for jumping in to lend a hand on that project; I know your plate was already full” is all people need to hear.

Don’t worry that offering praise will make it seem like you’re “going soft” or that people will slack off once they think you’re happy. On the contrary, for many people, praise is actually a motivator. Success begets success, and feelings of success beget more behaviors of success.

What’s critical to understand is that when people feel like they receive sufficient positive feedback, it makes them more open to hearing and accepting negative feedback from the same person. This is because they know that the boss is fair and clear, and that all feedback, whether positive or negative, is honest and comes from the heart.

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Do you have trouble giving feedback, whether positive or negative? Or do you have other questions or feedback about this issue? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!