Many would say that I was blessed at birth, not with a silver spoon in my mouth but a microphone. You know the guy, the one that a microphone is handed and he just won't give it back as he rambles on and on with lots of ah... and uh... interspersed with bad jokes. I was that guy once upon a time.
I loved to hear the sound of my own voice and would completely take over the conversation. I had an excuse, for many years I was a lecturer, an instructor, and a trainer. It was my job to speak and I never had a fear of the stage, whether it was in a room of 15 or 1500 people. I never worked from notes and never memorized a speech. I become very good at speaking.
That all changed when I went out on a date with a beautiful and talented college professor who I was quite enamored with. At dinner in a very nice restaurant and about midway through the second course, she placed her hand on mine, looked deep into my eyes and with the most lovely smile, said, "Don't you ever shut up?"
That was when I begin to learn the art of thinking more and speaking less, as well as the how to listen to others.
Most of us have been blessed with the gift of speech. We use speech to express our emotions, feelings, ideas and plans to others. Okay, sometimes we do talk to ourselves - even aloud when we are alone, but that's another column. But, like many things, overuse can have unexpected results and it may be much worse than the words I heard from my date for the evening.
I learned quickly that while we may have a mouth, we have twice as many ears and this might lead us to believe that listening might be more important than speaking. While that may not be true when I am wearing my lecturer, instructor or trainer caps, it is certainly important to understand when we are engaged in conversation with one or a few friends.
Learning the correct balance of speech and listening can prove beneficial to the way we communicate with others. This is especially true if we are speaking only to keep a grip on the other person's attention. Or, when we don't have the right words at the proverbial tip of our tongue and we begin to stumble to put our thoughts into words and create properly formatted sentences that come out more like gibberish to our listener. Yes, pretty soon they, like my date, will become bored and will perhaps take one of three paths. They will either fall asleep, leave you to your own devices or speak up in an attempt to get you to stop talking. Yes, as it turns out, the more we talk, the less we’re able to communicate.
Sure you have heard all the tired old cliches like "Think Before You Speak" and "Listen Before Jumping to Conclusions", but have you put any real thought into what they mean and how to better use them in your own life.
Why Speech is Easy
It shouldn't come as a surprise that we live in a "me" society. As a society, we have been led to believe to take the easy way in everything we do. There are entire books written on the "Easy Way" to do just about anything. Of the billions of website, many of the most popular are the ones that give you an easy way to do something, such as becoming a millionaire in ten easy steps. For many, speech is the easiest task to accomplish because they are in the habit of saying the same things over and over. They have their life story down pat since they have already lived it. They can tell you what they like and dislike based on past experiences. Thus speech for them is easy as it involves only dredging up what they already know well.
Why Thinking is Difficult
More difficult than speaking is thinking. Placing "think before you speak" into Google's search engine will get you 850,000 hits in 0.64 seconds. It seems that not thinking before you speak is so prevalent that some 850,000 sites had something to say about it. As a society, those under the age of 40 seem to have lost the ability to think. Perhaps it was because hand held calculators that were introduced in the 1970s did away with having to perform math problems in our head. As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined, according to research by Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA.
Why Listening is the Most Difficult
More difficult than speech and thinking is active listening. Because it involves thinking about what the other person is saying, active listening is extremely difficult for most. This is uncharted territory to them, as they may not have experienced the concepts that they are hearing. For those unaccustomed to thinking this can be very taxing and they can't wait to interject their own past experiences into the conversation. Conversations become a race to get as much said, before the other person interrupts with their own story of something similar that they experienced. How many times during a conversation have you had the other person nod their head repeatedly or repeat yes over and over during your speech. This is an unconscious habit made in the effort to not interrupt when their mind is telling them to jump in with their own thoughts.
We open our mouth without really knowing what we are going to say. We don't think, and we don't listen to what the other person has said. How many times have you said something only to have the other person in the conversation say the same thing, and you were forced to respond, "That's what I just said!" Sure, what they said will be slightly different because they were not listening to what you said and will use their own vocabulary and memory of their experiences. Most often, we find others simply rambling incoherently about the topic. Really, how many times have you had to state, "I can't believe that just came out of your mouth!" or ask, "Do you really believe what you are saying?"
What to Do
All this can be easily resolved. No matter how urgently you feel the need to begin talking, first, open your mouth and take a deep breathe. Use this moment to actually think about what you are going to say. No, really think about the words and the meaning of those words both to you and your listeners. No matter what you think you should say, that thought has more than just one option. During those moments of reflection if you really think well, your response will be well thought out. People will appreciate that you actually put thought to your response and will be more apt to listen.
What should you think about in that moment of deep breath? Making a STRONG response that is;
Sound - assure that your response will effectively communicate your thoughts
Timely - said at a favorable or useful time in the conversation
Relevant - closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand
Obligatory - what is required to further develop the conversation
Necessary - fundamental to the conversation or topic
Genuine - truly heartfelt and needed to be said
Always consider if what you want to say STRONG; Sound, Timely, Relevant, Obligatory, Necessary and Genuine? If you are just responding because other people are talking, then it’s possible your communication doesn’t fit the STRONG model. If not, then sit back and continue to listen. You want what you say to have impact, not just make noise.
The ability to speak requires a level of confidence. Thinking before you speak gives you confidence that what comes out of your mouth will be well thought out and you will be better thought of for having done so.