June 2005 - Become a Better Communicator by Keeping your Mouth Shut
Become a Better Communicator by Keeping your Mouth Shut
by Kenny Moore
As the sun warms my days, I find inspiration in the words of Robert Anton Wilson:
In corporate life we are in serious danger of believing that those who talk the loudest win the day. My 20 years in business have taught me that leaders who can actually keep their mouths shut and ears open have a better chance of being heard, believed and followed.
When I lived in the monastery as a Catholic priest, we had a spiritual practice called the "Grand Silence." Each evening after dinner and night prayer, we would retire to our cells under a cloak of silence that reigned until after Mass the following morning.
It was spiritual time spent reflecting on life, death and oneís relationship to the Divine. A chance to grapple with the dynamic tension between human frailty and the personal call to holiness. While religious reading was tolerated, we were encouraged to spend the time creatively doing nothing.
The Roman philosopher, Cato, once said: "Never am I more active than when I do nothing." Granted, he wasnít a monk, but he was articulating one of lifeís golden truths. In sacred silence, we have a chance to hear an alternative voice beyond our self-serving subconscious. There are certain messages that will only be revealed in darkness and uncluttered space. hose who have the fortitude and faith to wait there are often copiously rewarded.
I came to understand how valuable this silence was only after I left the monastery and got married. When my wife and I returned from our honeymoon and began our life of marital bliss, she would, each evening, talk about her day at work, planned projects for the house, the number and names of our expected offspring, as well as an endless array of other wifely concerns. It took about a week before I broke under the barrage of words. "Dear," I remember saying, "In the monastery, we didnít talk after dinner; we had the ĎGrand Silence.í"
I explained that I wasnít used to ongoing evening conversations. "I need some quiet in the house," I whispered. With concern and respect for her new husband, she lovingly replied: "Honey, youíre so damn weird!"
This tension between monastic silence and marital discourse went on for years. It eventually got resolved around the dinner table when my wife and I were sharing an evening repast, surrounded by our two young squabbling sons. Milk was being spilt, food was being thrown and parental patience was being compromised. After the ninth foray into a cacophony of sibling rivalry, my wife threw down her napkin and announced: "Thatís it. Grand Silence! Thereís no more talking. You boys leave the table, go upstairs and put your pajamas on and get into bed. Iíve had enough!" As the boys retreated to their lair, I looked at her with deep affection and said: "Honey, youíre so damn weird!"
If my memory serves me well, I think I spent that night sleeping alone on the couch.
Itís not just our personal life that benefits from silence. So does our corporate one.
I recently had a chance to work with one of our Operating officers. He asked my help in designing a group meeting with his managers to get their input regarding departmental goals. We worked assiduously in crafting a session largely focused on what the employees had to say, and intentionally kept executive remarks to a minimum. During the half-day program, participants broke into small groups to write down their thoughts about organizational needs, operational gaps and suggestions for productively moving the business forward. The employees spent some time writing and a lot of time speaking. The officer largely listened.
There were a few interesting insights. We came to learn that when executives speak, employees rarely listen or if they do listen they donít believe. But co-workers have great credibility and when they talk, they have a significant impact on their peers. Mostly because theyíre not seen as paid political envoys, but fellow workers laboring in the daily muck and mire. Even though the executive could have waxed eloquently about customer satisfaction and safety, having employees talk about their experiences on the job proved far more compelling.
After unedited conversations about business challenges and operational needs, one engineer remarked: "This is the first time I understand how our department actually fits into the companyís Growth Strategy." Thank God the folks from Corporate Planning werenít in the room; they would have reeled in horror.
In the midst of executive silence, we also got a chance to hear about our newly minted performance appraisal program and forced ranking system. Seems we achieved exceptional results in disheartening our employees and marginalizing the workforce.
As one brave director said:
When employees evaluated the half-day program, their one clear and consistent comment was: "How refreshing to be in a meeting with an officer who actually listens. It makes me hopeful about our future."
Additionally, for the last few years my CEO has been hosting informal dinner meetings with a handful of managers once a month. He wants to hear whatís working well in the company and whatís not. His main contribution to the conversation is silence, coupled with an intense interest in learning about whatís really going on at the workplace. Oddly enough, our top-ranking officer has come to learn that he finds out more about the hopes and concerns of our workers when he doesnít speak. Initially, he had me joining him to make sure he didnít talk too much. Over time, heís become a pro at it. My main responsibility now is to pick up the dinner tab and fret over my diminishing value to the company.
While silence comes more easily to monks than to Alpha-males, it is a skill that can be learned and honed. Here are some practical steps to get you started:
Mystery is marbled into all of life, and especially that of work. The realm of business is often the place where the drama of life unfolds. The perplexing realities of good, evil, suffering, and injustice are made manifest. The inscrutability of growth, transformation and personal redemption often accompanies our work. As we journey in our jobs, we come to realize that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.
Itís said that upon graduation, doctors are informed that half of what they were taught is wrong. The problem is, the medical establishmentís not sure exactly which half it is.
When youíre dealing with a human being, mystery runs rampant. Working with people is not a mechanical relationship. Itís a sacred one.
If you consider that corporations are comprised of hundreds and thousands of human beings, itís unlikely we can readily mandate operating principles that will engage and motivate them.
Perhaps simply showing up and listening is a worthwhile strategy for business success.
When confronted with mystery, our most practical response is awe: boldfaced and with abject stupefaction. Itís no surprise that "mystery" comes from the Greek verb meaning: keep your mouth shut. If weíre looking for an executive role model for the competency of managing mystery, we might want to consider Moses standing before the burning bush. In stark imitation, weíre well served to remain silent, remove our sandals and recall that we are standing on sacred ground.
I wonder how long itíll take Stephen Covey to add these to his list of "Highly Effective Habits"?
P.S. If youíre thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please E-mail me at kennythemonk [at] yahoo.com or call (973) 956-8210.
About the Author:
© Copyright 2005, Kenneth Moore. Used with permission of the author.
Kenny Moore is co-author of "The CEO and the Monk: One Companyís Journey to Profit and PurposeĒ (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the Top Ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 company. Reporting to the C.E.O., he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.
Upcoming Speaking Engagements:
PORTLAND, MAINE on 6/22-6/24/2005 at the "Corporate Ethics and Spirituality Conference" at Bangor Theological Seminary. See www.bcces.org or contact: Walter Corey: 207-831-4565.
SAN DIEGO, CA on 6/27-6/29/2005 at the Institute for International Researchís (IIR) "Operational Transformation Summit." See http://www.iirusa.com/transformation/ or contact Elizabeth Kamper: 212-661-3500 x. 3018
TUCSON, AZ on 4/23-4/26/2006 at the 2006 HR Planning Societyís Annual Global Conference at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa. See www.hrps.org.
"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." .. Robert McCloskey
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." .. Maya Angelou
"Leadership is about collectively listening to what is wanting to emerge in the world and having the courage to do what is necessary to help it emerge" .. Joseph Jaworski
Directory to Inspirational Quotes for Business and Work http://humanresources.about.com/od/workrelationships/a/quotations_dir.htm
About our resource links: We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links. We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.
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