Immodium for the Mouth: Three questions to ask before you speak

Blindly leading conversation can create awkward and sometimes painful blunders

There is nobody that loves to hear me talk more than me. I’d love to say it is the effect of years of working as a consultant, but the fact is that even as a kid I was a talker. In fact, one time I got off an airplane and when I met my mom at the gate the lady that had sat next to me came up to my mom and said, “I had a nice time speaking on the flight with your son, I think I know everything there is to know about your family.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to semi-control my tongue and listen and it has paid dividends. In fact, I now make a very conscious effort to let other people talk first whether it’s a chance meeting over coffee, casual conversation at a dinner party, or a business negotiation. In addition to being polite it also gives me a chance to gain situational awareness, understand the other person’s point of view, and gain the advantage of getting a bit better understanding of the person’s current emotional state before I start speaking. It turns out that a lot of people like to be the person doing the talking and by being a good listener you not only give yourself a chance to learn, you are also giving them a priceless gift—caring.

It turns out that what many people want is to be listened to and to have their ideas valued. By listening to them you are showing that you respect them and their thoughts. This is an incredibly powerful thing that can really change the tenor of a relationship, particularly in the early stages. I think the following three things should be going through your mind before you rush to fill the next lull in a conversation:

  1. Is my foot headed for my mouth? I think most people have had the horrifying experience of sticking their foot directly into their mouth during a conversation. Whether it’s telling a the joke that really isn’t funny because their sister had that problem or just hitting a little too close to home, this can end a friendship before it begins or kill a business deal. Listening first gives you a chance to know what not to say.
  2. Do I fully understand the conversation? When you talk first, you are providing all of the information and feeding the other persons awareness at the expense of your own understanding. Sometimes there is an advantage to speaking first because it allows you to claim a particular position, but I have found more often then not that you get more from letting others speak first. It gives you a chance to add their understanding of the situation to your existing understanding of the situation, which hopefully puts you in the position of having an informational advantage.
  3. Am I missing a chance to learn? There is a great quote from the playwright Wilson Mizer who wrote The Deep Purple where he says “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something.” The simple fact is that it is hard to learn while flapping your gums. By taking time to listen you have time to learn.

If you think of these before you speak you will learn more and have more successful conversations. Most people believe the most important thing that will be said in any conversation is whatever they are going to say next. Giving them the opportunity to say it will build your relationship at a minimum and most of the time it will ensure you are as well prepared as possible when it is your time to speak. I think it is pretty rare that the “First mover advantage” that is so sought after in business is a factor in conversation where going second often means having better information.

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