When to Shut Up

By: Josh

We can pull inspiration and conviction from a lot of different sources in life. And while I don't really consider social media to be one of those regular sources for me, I was surprised to recently find a post that did just that - offered a little inspiration and a little conviction, which has led me to reflect on its message ever since. It hit me hard enough to the point of writing about it.

The quote read: “Maturity is realizing how many things don’t require your opinion.”

Shortly after reading that, I was enjoying dinner with some friends, and we somehow landed on the topic of how people conduct themselves in conversation. So, I shared that quote commenting on how that is something I pay great attention to – when people find ways to make things about themselves. It was easy to even offer a few recent personal examples:

  • I shared with a friend that I was in need of some new headphones for running and the gym. He immediately responded, “Oh, dude, you need to get these ones. These are the best.” Then, in the same conversation, I mentioned that I need to get new running shoes. And it was the same response, “The shoes you need to get are…” I quickly realized the conversation was less about helping me out and more about him being seen as an expert.
  • I recently completed my routine military fitness test. Following my test, a leader in the organization asked what my score was. After sharing, they responded with, “Well, that’s almost as good as my score.” I can’t help but think to myself, “Oh, I’m glad I know this question was actually about you."
  • Following the same fitness test, a peer asked my score. I shared and he responded with, “yeah, I don’t think I’m going to get that high on this one.” Again, I see we are making this about you instead of simply celebrating me for a moment.
  • I was texting with a colleague and expressed that the day was pretty frustrating and that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. She responded saying, “Yeah, I feel that in my bones.” Ok, so we are not going to explore my situation, I see. And that’s ok. So, should I instead ask about how you’re doing instead?

Now, I recognize these all sound a little selfish, where I take issue when the situation is not about me. But these are the instances that jump out at me for that exact reason. The issue, however, is that I most certainly do the same thing to others without even realizing it. I do it to others I care about – spouse, junior leaders on my team, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. And that’s a problem. There is a difference between empathy as a leader (I see, appreciate, and relate to your circumstances), and self-centeredness as a leader (let me tell you about my own experience, opinion, and example to make it about me). We must ensure we are falling on the correct side of that fence.

My friends and I now maintain a running joke when we spend time together, calling one another out in conversation saying, “Oh, so we are making this about you now?” It’s a fun, but loving signal for some needed feedback.

Leaders Need to Shut Up Too

This issue of not really knowing when to shut up, and our tendencies to make things about ourselves, has huge impacts for leaders. Am I giving or taking up space right now as a leader? Why am I taking up space? Am I adding necessary value in doing so? Or should I be giving space instead?

Leaders take up space within the team and organization, absolutely. We provide purpose, direction, and motivation. We give guidance. Make decisions. And communicate perspective. These are all areas in which we can, and should, “take up space” as leaders.

With that said, there are times we shouldn’t take up space. Just because we are leaders does not mean we are not susceptible to trying to add “too much value,” unintentionally making conversations about us, or taking up space unnecessarily.

Leaders create developmental space for others to fill and grow in. But at a more basic level, giving space can be a simple way to let others feel heard, seen, valued, and included.

Giving Space

Leaders not taking up, and instead giving space for others to fill, can look like a variety of subtle, but impactful behaviors. It can be simply listening to understand and not rushing to give advice or “how we see it.”

It can be delaying responding to a question in a meeting, giving opportunity for someone else to share their insight first.

Instead of delivering guidance to the team, it can be first asking, “what do we all think?”

It can be pushing down decision-making authority to leaders below you, knowing that you have trained and certified a capable team.

It can just be listening to people share about their past weekend highlights and asking them questions to expand on details during a casual Monday discussion, instead of focusing on sharing about yours.

The core principle to remember is that they must become greater, I must become less. How can I give others more space, as often as possible?

So, how do we know when to shut up? I usually ask myself a few quick questions before I elect to speak up in any of the above scenarios. These questions are simple litmus tests that help me best gauge if I need to keep my mouth shut.

  • Why Am I Talking (WAIT)? What am I achieving by sharing what I have to say? Is it to offer helpful, needed value? Is it to aid in the success or development of my team? Or is it to add a little more value than is needed (“too much value”)? Is it because I want to be heard?
  • How can I maximize peoples’ developmental opportunity right now? Will they benefit most through me taking up or giving some space? Focus on the needs of others in the moment, not yourself.
  • Does this need to come from me, and come from me right now? The “this” in the question can be anything – guidance, advice, a decision, or even opinions and perspective.
  • Are they looking for support or solutions? Do they simply want to be heard and validated or are they in search of help and advice? This is an appropriate question for any sort of relationship in our life.

We, even as leaders, so easily default to speaking up and consuming space. It’s human nature to want to be heard and valued.

But more is not always better. There are times we need to shut up and give space to others. Use these questions above to help you know when to embrace this leader practice. These can lead us to ultimately take a different perspective. To consider defaulting to shutting up first, then asking ourselves, “Is this an opportunity where I should add value?” Often, I find that both the moment and the people involved are better served if I keep my mouth shut, even if for just a few moments longer.

Consider writing WAIT in big letters at the top of your notebook or notes paper before going into a meeting as a personal reminder.

Is there a meeting or one-on-one with a direct report this week where you can put this approach into deliberate practice to see how you do?

Can you do an end-of-week reflection asking how you did in managing giving and taking up space this week?

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