Knowing when to speak

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As a writer and as a citizen, I’m passionately in favor of freedom of speech. There are some unfortunate individuals, however, from whom it should be withheld for their own protection. Take, for example, the case of Walden O’Dell.

O’Dell chose this unfortunate turn of phrase in an invitation to a Republican fund-raiser: “[I’m] committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” Which would be no big deal if he weren’t CEO of Diebold Election Systems, the company that delivers more voting machines to our polling places than any other.

Oops. Hey, I’m sure O’Dell was referring to fund-raising and not Diebold’s software engineering. Still, he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut.

As would we all.

Next time you’re in a meeting, divert some of your attention to noticing who are the most effective participants. I did this once and noticed something disconcerting: It wasn’t me. I was too busy talking.

How about you? When a subject comes up you’re passionate about, what do you do? A lot of us act like Harry Potter’s friend Hermione, desperately waving her hand in the air hoping to be called on for the answer. Except that in business settings we don’t raise our hands waiting for the facilitator to call on us (I hope!) — we just grab the floor and talk until we run out of words or breath, or until others interrupt us with their own pithy commentary.

That’s what most of us do. What do the most effective participants do? Mostly, they wait.

Yes, I know you have a lot of knowledge about (for example) which DBMS is the best on the market. Yes, you’re doing everyone a disservice by not sharing that knowledge with the group. But it’s okay. Really.

The question you have to ask yourself is what your goal is. If it’s to share your knowledge, talking is a clear necessity. Repetition isn’t, but saying what you know once is a prerequisite to everyone else hearing it.

If your goal is more than that — if it’s to prove to everyone that you’re the smartest person in the room — talking early and often might be the right strategy. Probably not, but it might be.

But if you want everyone in the room to choose the course of action you think is best, hold your tongue. If necessary, pinch it between your thumb and forefinger and don’t let go for awhile.

There will come a time when the discussion starts to either wind down or repeat itself. That’s when it’s your turn. Here’s the formula: (1) Get the floor; (2) Summarize what’s been said; (3) Find a way to agree with ideas you don’t like that removes them from consideration; (4) Present a way out of the impasse. Like this:

“Can I say something? Thanks. Clearly, this is a complicated subject. Here’s what I think I’ve heard. Fred, you made the excellent point that Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft dominate the market. Just as a pulse-check — does everyone here agree with Jill that Microsoft’s software doesn’t scale to the enterprise as well? Yes? Me too.”

“Jim, I know you’d like us to explore open source alternatives. I have to say, I find the notion attractive myself, but listening to everyone here it’s pretty clear that using open source at the heart of our architecture is a bit too adventurous for this company. What I’d suggest is that we hold off, and look for an opportunity for a smaller scale proof-of-concept project for open source software and take it off the table here. Does that make sense to everyone? Jim, can you live with that?”

“Good. Then it looks like we have a toss-up between IBM and Oracle. We need some way to break the tie, and from everything I heard it won’t be their relative technical merits. If we expand our conversation to include which company we’d rather do business with, does that get us anywhere?”

Whether the subject is database management systems or what to have for lunch, people will follow your direction far more often if you keep your own counsel while waiting for most of the shouting to finish. Then, as a non-combatant, you can get everyone to the right answer.

Make sense? Good. I’m going to sign off now, and spend the next month working hard to take my own advice.