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Breaking the Silence

As we sharpen our work skills, we sometimes overlook an area that could always be improved: our ability to effectively communicate and connect with others. In recent radio interviews, the authors of two new books offered some thoughts about communicating with the people around us. Here are a few of their insights, as well as some strategies they shared.


Don’t stay silent

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t always speak up when we should in our professional lives, said Elaine Lin Hering, author of “Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully.” Our cultural upbringing might have taught us that we succeed by keeping our heads down and working diligently. Women and minorities often feel overlooked, ignored and intimidated. Organizational hierarchies keep many silent. But staying mum has its costs, for both organizations and individuals. When staff nod in agreement with bosses, even as they disagree or have differing insights that they hesitate to share, they inadvertently create a skewed reality that could result in poor decision-making and negative impact on a company’s business. By staying silent, people miss opportunities to learn how to work through differences with others. They also end up erasing themselves, becoming invisible and diminishing their value in the workplace. “Keeping you head down doesn’t mean you get rewarded in corporate America,” Hering said.

Take small steps to speak up

One simple way to train yourself to speak up more in your professional life is to practice doing it in small ways in your personal life. As you find yourself wanting a change — perhaps the table by the window at a restaurant instead of the one in the corner — ask for what you want in a polite, professional way. By speaking up instead of staying silent and stewing, you turn these small situations into opportunities to build confidence, Hering said. She gave an example from her own life. On a cab ride, she wanted to get some fresh air, but her window lock was on. The driver hadn’t been very friendly, so she fretted that he might be aggravated if she asked him to hit his control button and roll it down. Finally, she asked him nicely to do so. He immediately complied and fresh air wafted in. The incident reminded her, she said, “that I could ask for something and that doing so might have a positive result.” 

Avoid triggering language

Often, we don’t speak up because we don’t want to seem confrontational. To make it clear you are simply voicing your opinion, Hering recommends prefacing your comments with a phrase like “From where I sit” or “I see it differently” so that it is immediately clear that you aren’t challenging others but are instead offering another viewpoint. Hering said phrases like those effectively communicate that though you feel your perspective is legitimate, you also realize your viewpoint is limited. We also can unintentionally silence others by asking for their thoughts in a way that seems threatening to them and that doesn’t encourage them to meaningfully engage. So instead of asking, “What do you think?” which might make the person feel that their answer could come back to bite them, Hering advises coming up with a list of standard questions that are more specific like “What are the pros of this idea? What are the cons?”

Listen like a ‘supercommunicator’

One of the important discoveries that investigative journalist Charles Duhigg made as he did interviews and research for his book “Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection” is that anyone can learn the skills it takes to become a supercommunicator.

Contrary to what the term suggests, “supercommunicators,” aren’t the most talkative, dominant people at the table nor are they the most charismatic. Rather, Duhigg said, they are humble, the quieter person who listens and asks questions that show others they are listening. “Supercommunicators ask 10 to 20 times more questions than others,” he says. They also tend to ask deeper questions, less about facts and more about feelings. For example, instead of asking a lawyer, “Where do you practice?” the supercommunicator might ask, “What made you decide to go to law school?” As the lawyer describes how she became a lawyer after a friend was treated unjustly, the supercommunicator can share what inspired them to choose their career path, sending the two off on a conversation that is deeper and more meaningful than the typical “what do you do?” chat.

Deepen conversations by ‘looping’

Researchers have found that groups led by a supercommunicator bond better than those led by someone who dominates the conversation. The supercommunicator is the person who doesn’t voice their ideas but instead listens to others, encourages them to speak up and shows they want to learn from others. Others in a group will end up deferring to the supercommunicator, Duhigg said, because they realize that person, through their questions and encouragement, makes the group’s conversation better. The technique supercommunicators use to demonstrate they are listening, called “looping,” involves three steps: asking questions, often deeper ones; repeating the answer; and asking the person they are listening to if they got it right. Looping immediately shows people they are being heard. And, said Duhigg, “If some is listening closely to us, we are almost incapable of not listening to them.” At the same time, looping does not communicate agreement. Instead, it shows others we understand what they have said and where they are coming from and allows us to share that we might not agree, and we would like to explain why. Because the approach shows we are trying to communicate rather than control someone, Duhigg said, it paves the way for discussion instead of debate.