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Sometimes, saying nothing tells everything.
We need to know when to shut up and learn when to talk with a few words that we plant like seeds (not too close to each other, but not too far).
We were having dinner with a friend, and in the middle of it, he said, “Candost, why are you so silent?” I was confused because we were in the middle of a conversation, and I was actively participating. When he clarified that he meant silent in life in general, I was yet surprised again. Because I always considered myself someone who talks too much.
Then I remembered one scene from a Turkish movie where this exact question is asked. And I gave the exact same answer to dismiss the question. I said, “I talked too much. I didn’t see any benefit. So, I stopped.” I wasn’t ready to go into a deep conversation, and I needed to observe myself and reflect. Even though my friend was clearly unsatisfied with my answer, he let it go. But, in my mind, I couldn’t. And this was around four years ago.
Over the years, I wondered why my friend and I saw my behavior differently. Why do I consider myself talking too much, meanwhile others perceive me as silent? And how it reflects in my professional life as a leader?
I thought about the early years of my career. I remember talking too much with my limited knowledge. I assumed I knew things. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know, and I started to listen and only talk when needed. Isn’t it the same in life? The children talk too much, but the adults listen. As we grow, we get more silent. It’s fascinating to see the same trend in professional life.
Reducing my over-talkativeness tremendously helped me learn more because others had space to share their thoughts and experiences. When I started listening, I also realized many smart people are often invisible because of the loud voices (in my early career, that was me) getting the most attention.
When I became a manager, I had to learn how to stay silent to make invisible people visible, hear all voices, and create space for discussion without actively participating in it. People expected me to create that space for them to talk, not for me. However, this expectation was unintuitive for me. All my professional life as an engineer, people expected me to talk and give input, but now they want me to shut up—quite literally. I had to let go of all my instincts, urges, and learned behavior.
It was not easy. However, once I did, the world became more peaceful, and I finally felt that I was helping people. It was so controversial; how could I help people while saying almost nothing?
I brought this question to my manager back then and asked how I could balance staying silent and giving the right direction or coaching to people. That’s when he said, “Sometimes, saying nothing tells everything.”
My mind quickly responded with, “What bullshit.”
But I reminded myself that I needed to listen. And I actually wanted to learn. What could I lose if I tried?
Oh boy, I was wrong.
It took me a while to figure out how, but once I did, it was magical. People solved their problems when we were talking, and the only thing I did was say less than ten words and mostly ask a question within these ten words.
There were awkward silences, for sure. In any of these moments, I counted up to ten (or, rarely, up to twenty) within me. Silently. People usually started talking when I was around five or six. They either brought up an extremely valuable insight that I was missing, revealed what they honestly thought about a situation, or just thought out loud and solved their problems without me saying a word.
That first four seconds gave people time to digest what we were talking about and light up new thoughts in their minds. While I was keeping my mind busy by counting up to ten, people usually couldn’t resist the awkward silence after that four seconds.
I had to bite my tongue and not fill that silence even though how much difficult it was. That silence was an investment in people’s growth (as I learned from the book The Coaching Habit), and I had to make that investment. When I did, I finally understood what my manager meant.
There is a big word at the beginning of the title that I haven’t talked about yet. And that is: “Sometimes.”
While staying silent is unintuitive and challenging, learning when to shut up is even tougher. You can’t just stay silent when you are expected to give input, and you definitely shouldn’t talk at every chance you find.
Oysters open completely when the moon is full; and when the crab sees one it throws a piece of stone or twig into it and the oyster cannot close again so that it serves the crab for meat. Such is the fate of him who opens his mouth too much and thereby puts himself at the mercy of the listener.
—Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519
Learning when to talk is a long experiment, and I’m still progressing because it also changes from situation to situation and person to person. Especially in our 1:1s with people who report to me, I feel more comfortable with awkward silences because I’m not facilitating the 1:1 meetings; the ownership is on the other side. So, if there is an awkward silence, they usually bring up the next topic, and I often talk last.
In group meetings that I’m facilitating, it’s also not really challenging because I’m in that facilitator’s seat, and the responsibility of the moderator is moderating the meeting. The biggest challenge is when we discuss a problem or brainstorm solutions with a group.
That’s where my software engineer brain plays its tricks. The years of education and cemented behaviors of I-share-my-knowledge-and-contribute-to-the-discussion-and-work-hands-on kick in and push me to talk more. Whenever I feel this compulsive need to take action, I try remembering how my previous leaders didn’t jump in and gave me space to share my perspective when I was an engineer (lucky me). However, it’s challenging as a leader because I see two things as my job: doing (making things happen) and being (observing and reflecting)—as Michael Watkins put it right in the book The First 90 Days.
Effective leaders strike the right balance between doing (making things happen) and being (observing and reflecting). But it is challenging...to let yourself "be"...and the pressure to "do" almost always comes from inside the leaders than from outside forces; it reflects a lack of confidence and a consequent need to prove yourself.
I have that lack of confidence in me (hello, my inner critic). That insecurity is my main urge. When I recognize this urge, I try to remember Watkins’s recommendation:
Remember: simply displaying a genuine desire to learn and understand translates into increased credibility and influence.
In general, I have a huge desire to learn and understand. That’s where I leverage it: I wait to hear all opinions first and then, only then, try a few things.
I play devil’s advocate. It’s one of the most useful things I learned while reading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. If you have a controversial idea or want to challenge people, just tell them, “Let me play the devil’s advocate here,” and continue, “So we discover other options. How about we do X? What would be the consequences?” Once people hear that I’m not approaching with authority but a discovery mindset, they often show a healthy debate attitude and can clearly tell me why my idea sucks. Playing the devil’s advocate helps to reach a better result.
Another thing I learned from Turn The Ship Around was telling people, “I’m thinking out loud; here is where we need to be and why,” and I encourage them to think out loud with worries, concerns, and thoughts. This approach not only creates a debate environment but also helps me learn what I actually think. When I think one solution is better than the other and I want to bring it up, I use this approach and end the sentence with a question to others (e.g., “What is missing or what you see wrong?”), so they can also correct me on the way if I misunderstand something.
Meanwhile, there are a few necessities for any kind of silence to work. It won’t help you if the trust is not built in or nobody knows you yet. So, you shouldn’t be a mysterious person, and people shouldn’t be hesitant to talk to you because they have no idea what you think. This staying silent only works after people get to know you and trust you.
As we don’t—and shouldn’t—have the authority of the French King Louis XIV, we have to learn the balance.
Ministers and nobles would spend days debating on the state’s issues and finally arrive at a moment to present two different sides to Louis XIV. They were also spending a lot of time on how to best present, wordsmithing every sentence and deciding on what time of the day to approach Louis. Once they present, Louis would only say, “I shall see,” and walk away. Nobody would hear anything about the issue from him for days, sometimes weeks, and they would only see the results when he came to a decision to act.
Acting like Louis is not an option for me and, I strongly believe, for other leaders in software companies. Silence is a balance to find, and it’s challenging. However, after you have the relationship built in and have trust, leveraging the silence and creating room for others both in team meetings and in 1:1s get easier.
Lastly, whenever you talk, choose your words wisely. Because their impact is almost always invisible to you.
"Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. Reason grows in the same way; it is not large to the outward view, but increases as it does its work. Few words are spoken, but if the mind has truly caught them, they come into their strength and spring up. Yes, precepts and seeds have the same quality; they produce much, and yet they are slight things. Only, as I said, let a favourable mind receive and assimilate them. Then of itself the mind also will produce bounteously in its turn, giving back more than it has received." — Seneca, Letters from A Stoic, p. 218
Remember, “Sometimes, saying nothing tells everything.”
P.S. I heard the French king’s story from the book The 48 Laws of Power.