There are some lessons we learn the hard way – like not touching a hot stove when you are a child.  There are some we accept without having to have it proven – such as not stepping out into traffic.  But then there are those lessons that we seem to never quite internalize.  One of the lessons I seem to continually need to learn over and over is when to keep my mouth shut.

I am a strong advocate for communications and the power of words.  I believe that in most jobs you are hired to have an opinion and speaking your mind, writing words, making presentations and being passionate about what you know is integral to your success.

I also believe that relationships and friendships are stronger when you share thoughts and feelings.  And, history has shown that conflicts and wars are not ended through silence but through negotiations and increased understanding.

So I operate from a place of always wanting to talk everything out.

And while for the most part this is a very effective philosophy, there are times when the best thing you can do is know when to stop talking.

I am pretty good at this when it comes to business. When trying to convince clients to take a direction different from the one they are personally connected to, I put forward an alternative and then retreat from the conversation. I have learned that it is important to give people time to mull over a different idea so they can find a way for it to mesh with their mindset. This results in their being more open to further discussion rather than being shut down immediately from pushing too soon.

However, I struggle much more with using silence and distance as a positive tool in personal relationships. Somehow, when it comes to my partner, family and friends, I often forget this concept and, instead of backing off, I say everything that is in my head right away – often making a situation worse than it would have been if I had just counted to 10 – or better yet – 7,200.

When my nine-year old nephew starts to throw a tantrum because the adults are all ignoring him, not taking the bait would be far more productive than my teasing him and getting kicked (literally) as a result.  Rather than staying out of it and letting him calm down on his own, I only goad him on into a  full-blown frenzy and quickly become the bad Aunt.

When having disagreements with my partner, I push to ‘clear the air’ when really it would be far more prudent to retreat to separate rooms. Rather than giving each other space to let the flames of anger and frustration die down, my push to keep talking only provides further fuel for the fire.

Sometimes putting a conversation on-hold is a far more effective tool for ensuring that what you want to say gets heard.  Letting people process information for themselves and giving them time to think can soften and remove some of the emotional quotient that stops people from being open to differing ideas or difficult conversations.  And, as I have once again been reminded, in the case of nine-year olds, silence is far less painful.

As the guru Shirdi Sai Baba said “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true,” and most importantly, “does it improve the silence?”

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My step daughter was killed in an automobile accident when she was 21; I was in China on business when it happened.  I was supposed to have gone out to dinner with her the night before I left but I cancelled because I felt too pressured to get things done before the trip.  I wish I had said yes, I wish I had made her the priority and seen her that one last time.

A young woman I know was enlisting in the Navy.  One day her recruiter was driving her to an appointment and he started asking her really personal questions about her sex life.  When she didn’t respond, he proceeded to tell her in detail about the women he had slept with.  When he asked her if this was making her uncomfortable and if she was a prude, she didn’t really answer, just shrugged and made some awkward comment.  She wishes she had spoken up and told him that he was totally out of line.  It still bothers her years later that she didn’t.  She wonders how many other female recruits he treated like that.

A friend of mine had a boss that was really abusive; he was always putting down his employees and yelling at them in front of everyone.   He made it an incredibly difficult work environment and she was miserable.  Eventually she went out on medical leave and never returned to the job.  She wishes she had told her boss what she thought of him before she left.   By staying silent she didn’t get any closure and the thought of visiting friends at that office still gives her anxiety, not to mention the impact that unresolved relationship has had on subsequent bosses.

We all have things we wish we had said to someone –a proclamation of love that went unsaid or standing up for oneself in an awkward situation; times where, in hindsight, we would have said things differently.  In some cases, like my stepdaughter’s accident, there is no way to know that you are going to regret the lost opportunity and there is no chance to change that.  But, more often than not, we have another chance to speak up and say what we want.

It takes guts to confront someone but it can be done effectively by moving beyond the emotionality of the situation.  When someone says something that upsets us we have an immediate mind-body reaction.  Our blood gets pumping, our anger or embarrassment rises, we can feel it in our stomach and we want to lash out.  And in that case, it’s a good thing we don’t immediately say something as reacting from a place of emotion doesn’t usually have a positive outcome.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever speak up.

Avoiding conflict may be the right thing to do in the moment; however, as with my friend with the abusive boss, not ever addressing it can cost you dearly.  Don’t view waiting as a missed opportunity, and don’t let it be your excuse for never addressing it.  Taking the time necessary to calm down will allow you to formulate a rational response and alleviate a lot of future angst.  Sometimes it can just take a count to 10, a brief pause to calm your nerves and let your mind sort through your reaction so you can respond.  Other times, you may have to take a day or two to until you find a statement that feels right.  Addressing an issue later, when it is less volatile, can be far more productive for all parties.  Living your life saying “I wish I said that,” not so productive.

It takes effort to keep meaning in the things we say.  Greetings, salutations, even protestations of love become more of a habit than expressions of our feelings.

As Americans we pretty much use the phrase “how are you” as a substitute for hello.  We toss it out as we walk past someone and don’t actually expect or even wait for an answer.

Salutations have become non-descript as well. I actually think about salutations all the time, I look for them at the end of all the correspondence I get and I often spend a good 30 seconds or more trying to figure out the proper one to use when I write people.

In business correspondence I often use “respectfully yours.”  I like the message it implies.  In personal correspondence I often close with “take care.”  These days, however, the majority of people don’t use salutations at all.  They just end it, kind of feels like they hung up a phone call without saying goodbye.

A lot of couples end phone conversations with “I love you” rather than goodbye.  Right after I separated from my husband, I accidentally found myself hanging up from a contentious phone call saying “love ya.”  Thing was, I didn’t love him anymore, it was just such a habit to end a call with that phrase that I didn’t even think about it.  I love you had come to mean goodbye.

It is easy to spend so much time inside our own heads that we walk through life on automatic pilot, tossing out habitual phrases without thinking – greeting a group of women with “hey guys,” calling a co-worker “dude” or “girl,” adding “you know” or “like” into every sentence.

A little thought behind the words you use goes a long way to endear you to others.  People will feel they are important if every time you say “how are you?” you wait for a response.  “I love you” will maintain far more meaning if you only use it when you can really connect with the other person.  Your co-workers will have a sense of recognition if you use their name instead of a generic characterization.  A thank you given with emphasis and direct eye contact expresses far more appreciation than one casually tossed out as you run out the door.

Certainly you are going to like appear far more intelligent if you like leave out habitual throw away words, you know dude.

Judiciously,

Tina

I stumbled upon a networking group (seemingly for mothers who have started businesses) while having breakfast at Hof’s Hut last week.  I couldn’t resist ear hustling a little and, not surprisingly, the conversation involved the same social media admonitions that I hear ad nauseum these days – “how many have a Facebook page for your business, how many Twitter?”  And then, “everyone should be using these forms of social media.”  Really… should they, should everyone just put up a page, upload a post, and send out a 140 character Tweet?

At the risk of being cast as a heretic, I disagree with the business pundits who keep pushing that anyone with a desire to succeed should have a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, create a blog and fight for hits, clicks and likes.  I get it; I got it the first 500 times I heard it – social media, done right, can be invaluable.  But honestly, some people just shouldn’t use it.  They and their businesses would be much better off if they just kept their virtual mouths shut.

Social media advocates are yelling for everyone to jump into the lifeboat without noticing that it is full of holes.  The focus continues to be on getting the message out with very little emphasis on what’s and how it’s being said and, more importantly, how it’s being received.   You absolutely should not join the social media melee if what you create is boring, meaningless and actually has the opposite effect from what was intended.

Recently a fellow consultant asked me to join her on Twitter, she told me that it wasn’t really her thing but the company she’s working with wants her to ‘up her profile.’  So far she’s Tweeted numerous links to articles that I have already seen and/or I have no idea why I should read.  I have always liked my colleague but I’m beginning to think she’s not very enlightened or interesting.

A former classmate of mine is searching for a new job and is very active on LinkedIn which she feeds from her Twitter account. I now know when she goes to the gym, where she gets her mani/pedi and that she has time for facials every week.  Busy woman, but the message I’m getting is that she’s not working very hard.

Great messages, presented in a meaningful way, have amazing power.  But even the best message will fall on deaf ears if it doesn’t offer something of value.   Creating a meaningful message takes time, re-Tweeting someone else’s article doesn’t.  Rather than just sending out links, create a summary of what the article said and tell why you think it’s worth my reading.  And don’t just tell me why you found it interesting, it isn’t interesting if it is only about you.  No one likes sitting next to the person who does nothing but talk about themselves at a dinner party, why would anyone want to be subjected to that online?

The same thing applies to messages on Facebook, websites, e-blasts and blogs.  Don’t throw out generic appeals to an autonomous audience hoping something will stick.  If you’re telling people about your newest product, or latest meal, or most recent project and you’re not finding a way to make it valuable to them, you’re a bore.   There are a lot of appeals you can use beyond just providing information:

–          be entertaining,  make them laugh, cry, think

–          be educational, show them how the product can improve their social life, health or income

–          make their life easier, offer a better solution to a problem

–          do the research, show them how to cut through the red tape

–          make the reader feel important and understood!

Yes, social media can be extremely beneficial to building a business or career, but as Abraham Lincoln said, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Business Plans – you have a product, service or idea that you want to get off the ground.  But how?  What kind of money will you need, how much time will it take, do you need partners, who will buy it?  If you build it – it’s doubtful they will just come.  A detailed business plan is your roadmap to make sure you have a clear vision of your destination and ensure you and all your passengers will arrive successfully.

Sales Pitches –  you are about to make a pitch to someone who you really need to want what you’ve got.  Sure you know your product/service, but can you create a presentation that breaks through the clutter? Can you afford not to?  Does your PowerPoint still have 5-7 bullets on every page?  Are you using templates?  Are you tired of saying the same thing over and over again? Guarantee you your buyer is tired of hearing and seeing it. Successful sales pitches don’t come easily to everyone, they are not a talent you are born with, it is a learned skill.  You wouldn’t roof your own house without an expert, you shouldn’t risk losing your biggest pitch without some professional guidance either.

Public Speaking –  You’ve been there, sitting at a conference, attending a number of different presentations by experts in their fields.  The synopsis of the seminar sounded really interesting but the speaker is just soooo boring.  His slides are killing you, her voice monotonous, his movements distracting.   On average, over 75% of the speakers miss their mark because of their presentation style.  Being part of the other 25% takes awareness, practice and more than just talking to your mirror.

Appeals for Funding/Donations – You need money.  You’re passionate about why and what you are going to do with it.  You know you can change someone’s world if you just had the all elusive cash.  But can you get out of your own way enough to make the appeal that works?  Can you move beyond your own passion enough to see how to make the person with the money care and believe enough give?  Passion isn’t always going to pay the bills, but the right persuasive appeal just might.

Web Content – admit it, you just don’t want to write all that stuff yourself, and update it all the time, and figure out how to write it to it appeal to the reader each and every time.  You could, but you really have something else that you would prefer to or need to do first.  But you can’t afford to just wing it, most likely it is one of your main communication vehicles with your end-user.  You need someone who does want to write it, who enjoys figuring out the right appeals, who understands how incredibly, super, totally important it really is.

Marketing Materials – see “web content.”  (Yeah I could have written another paragraph but sometimes, short and sweet works best.)

Ghost Writing – articles, blogs, books, letters, emails, white papers, letters to the editor – you’ve got a lot to say but not necessarily the time or the talent to say it the way you really want it said.  It would be so much easier to dictate your ideas and/or share your notes and have someone spit them out as deeply meaningful literary masterpieces.  So go ahead, it’s still your idea, your thoughts, your present, you’re just getting some help wrapping them.