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The Argument for Silence

Smart negotiators and leaders often say little, in favor of listening, says Dan Lyons, author of "The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut." He talks to Brunswick’s Kavi Reddy.

Dan Lyons has written extensively about startup culture and Silicon Valley in his books, as well as for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Fortune, Vanity Fair and Wired. He has written for HBO’s Silicon Valley series and was the creator and voice of the “fake Steve Jobs” blog.

Recently, Brunswick Partner and Co-General Counsel Kavi Reddy spoke with him about his new book, STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World. Lyon’s experience of realizing that he was a “talkaholic” led him to examine what this meant for him, his relationships with his family and with work, and how talking less, and listening more can help us all.

Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons, author "STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World."

Your book has a counter-intuitive takeaway: Communicating too much is dangerous, and talking less and listening more is a powerful way to get more of what you want.

When you talk less, you listen more. The big idea of shutting up is then to use that space to listen. Really listen. At one level, you avoid catastrophes and calamities, but you can also be a lot more successful. You can get more, talk less, negotiate better, maybe even get a promotion. In addition to helping yourself, what you can really do is improve the lives of those around you.

Leaders being quiet is good for their team?

At every level of leadership, the job is really to bring out the best in the people who work for you, or even around you. Your role is to help those people unlock their potential and do great things and grow.

It seems that instead of silence, what is valued now is putting every thought you have out there with no filter.

There has been a Cambrian explosion of content out there: There are 2 million podcasts, 48 million episodes and half of these have just 26 downloads to them. We’ve created this culture where we believe that success is measured by your ability to attract attention—have 1 million Twitter followers, have a big podcast. We are encouraged by the world around us to try to make stuff and say stuff, to have an opinion on everything and we are pulled into this. We have so much content and stuff flying at us, and it is really taking a toll on our psyches.

Angry content gets more reaction and the system is gamified to reward follower count, likes, comments. So people want that rush again and they start realizing that the meaner and more angry they are, the more successful they are in that platform. You are being trained to overtalk.

You want to get the most productive, effective, happy and engaged company you can. The way to get that is quietly, by listening and creating space.

So, there is power in quiet?

Powerful people tend to talk less. As great a leader and speaker as Barack Obama is, he is an even better listener. He’s said that when he was a community organizer, at first he would say, “I’m going to help,” but listening was really the key. Angela Merkel is said to be a great listener, brilliant, but her speeches are terrible and it’s almost on purpose. She kind of wants to put people to sleep.

When you’re not out there publicly yammering, you can be listening, gathering information and deploying it really selectively. Silence is a way of both gaining power and wielding it. There may be some chicken and egg at play as well. Obama and Merkel are very powerful people. Did they get powerful because they were quiet, or did they get quiet when they got power because the way to wield power is to hold it and use it?

You describe how women are unfairly pegged as being overtalkers when statistically, men are more likely to be overtalkers.

Women are interrupted much more frequently than men. Next time you’re in a meeting, just sit and watch. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Has COVID and Zoom made it easier or harder to use quiet at work?

Especially on group Zooms, one can just hit the mute button, and if you do want to say something, you have to actively do it. The raise hand function is great. There is a pause between someone calling on you and you speaking and it forces you to think about what you are going to say.

I keep signs above my desk that say “Quiet, Listen, Wrap it up.” I find it easier to sit back and listen. It feels easier on Zoom to have meetings where everyone feels seen, feels heard, versus in person where people are just shouting and interrupting. But let me be clear: There is a lot of value in in-person meetings and conversations, and they may be better.

BR_STFU cover_web

Can shutting up serve as a tool to create a more inclusive workspace?

Look at the future of work. Right now, the greatest and most pressing question for a lot of CEOs is, “Should we get everybody back into the office? How do we do that?” Remember that communication doesn’t mean talking; it means listening. It’s not, “I’m going to sit here and go back and forth and tell you how to fix this, and which days to come in, and why you should do that, and here’s how to do it.” It’s deeper. You have to have that conversation and really listen, build that trust and then build alignment. And only then, together say, “OK, how do we figure out the future of work?”

In the book, I talk about Bill Marriott, who ran the giant hotel company his father created. He talks a lot about learning how to listen. He says something to the effect of “I didn’t always decide in the way they wanted me to, but I felt that if I had listened and they felt respected and heard, then they would buy into what the decision was.”

You want to get the most productive, effective, happy and engaged company you can. The way to get that is quietly, by listening and creating space.

It seems simple. Why is it so hard?

We know we have to have difficult conversations, but we don’t ever tell people how. We don’t teach people how to listen. We do show and tell when you’re a kid, which is all about getting up and telling you about my pen. What we don’t do at the end of it is ask “OK, all of you write down, what do you remember? What did so-and-so say?” We don’t teach how to really pay attention and listen.

People think it seems weak to just not have anything to say. They feel like it is incumbent on them to have all the answers. It is hard for people to have a conversation and not talk but listen.

There are many times in life where you should speak up. But when you do, do so intentionally. Know what you want to say, and what you want to get. But there are also many situations where you should say nothing. In a way, silence is also a form of communication. You are conveying something with silence.

Finally, how can we practice STFU?

Just listen. Remain present and connected, but quiet and listening. Listening is a superpower.

The Authors

Kavi Reddy

Partner, New York

Kavi is Brunswick’s Co-General Counsel. She leads on all legal and contractual issues with clients and vendors in the US. She also advises on litigation, labor and employment matters, commercial production, media and intellectual property issues, and regulatory and compliance matters.