“From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen” is a line from the ‘Father and Son’ song by Cat Stevens. The song depicts the typical angst of youth and the counter balancing views of the father figure. I used to identify with the young character in the song but, as I get older, I now think he was given a good advice about less mouth / more ear.
This theme crops up in different cultures urging us to listen in preference to talking. From: “God gave you two ears and one mouth, use them in the same proportion”, or:” It’s better to remain silent and risk being considered a fool, rather than speak out and prove you are one”. Nevertheless, we persist on talking endlessly and aimlessly. Plato was the earliest to remind us to not speak so much, to no avail. But, more from Plato later.
I am not referring to social talk which is generally considered the glue that binds families, friends and communities. That is a different topic altogether and I do not intend to go there.
My beef is with workplace talk…
For example, I find it amusing how individuals validate a meeting from the sole perspective of their personal contribution. A meeting is deemed to have been very relevant / irrelevant, positive/negative, great ideas exchanged / waste of time, and right / wrong conclusions reached from the degree of their own contribution to it. Check it out yourself. Ask two or three people emerging from a meeting: how did it go? They will give you a summary, quote their utterances at length and declare their degree of satisfaction based on how much or little their contribution influenced the meeting. Even those who end up saying absolutely nothing, will invariably declare it a waste of time, or words to that effect. I suppose, this is why the most senior person in a meeting nearly always declares the meeting to have been successful because they always get their way, irrespective of how much or little they speak.
When we are young, inexperienced and anxious to impress, it is understandable to be keen to try and make our presence felt and show we are relevant. But, as we go up the organisation food chain, all the way to the boardroom, where participants are powerful, knowledgeable and experienced and therefore, the need to talk too much should reduce.
But, this is not always true. No doubt, some do grow quieter and less verbose with age and experience. Others develop a taste for the sound of their own voices and are determined to talk the rest of the audience to submission. I have been in meetings where two (sometimes more) are actually talking simultaneously at one another for what seems like eternity, until they realise the futility of what they are doing and shut up.
I really don’t know why we behave that way but, maybe because:
- We like to remind others how brilliant we are, even if we are not;
- When we talk, we don’t have to pay attention and listen to the other boring people in the room;
- We have worked jolly hard all of our lives to reach the dizzy heights and we want to crow about it;
- We no longer see wisdom beyond the confines of our brains. In other words, we have attained total wisdom!
But, the saddest explanation I can think of is the fact that we see our days of relevance are now numbered so we cling on with our fingernails to the edges of the boardroom table in case they drag us away to retirement.
Next time you find yourself in a boardroom or some similarly august setting, check out the underside of the table for fingernail marks (the topside will always be well polished), and remember those words by Plato:
The wise speak when they have something to say; fools speak because they have to say something.