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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!