One of the principles of Dialogue is to slow the cadence. Doing so creates space for pauses and silence, where one person speaks at a time. Slowing things down also creates opportunities to be more mindful of mental and verbal interruption. During these moments of pause, silence and mindfulness, there is something else that almost always happens (at least in my experience): In freeing ourselves from our typical frenetic pace, we speak slower.
There are many, many reasons to speak slower:
- Connecting your emotions to what you are communicating
- Effectively getting your point across
- Opportunities to avoid misunderstanding through miscommunication
- More presence and thoughtfulness in your response
And while these are very important benefits, I have found that when people commit to intentionally speak slower, something more profound begins to happen…they gain deeper understanding of what it means to be slow to speak.
I say this is profound because our society tends to reward us for the opposite. Think about when you were in second or third grade or even high-school, and the praise you received as one of the first students to raise her hand, as you tried not to blurt out the right answer. Those of us who were quieter students were perhaps labeled as “non-participatory” once report card time came around.
I’ll never forget Mr. Schurrender, my freshman high school math teacher. As a child, I was not only very introverted; I was also very shy. I rarely raised my hand for anything and when I was called upon despite not raising my hand, I spoke very quietly.
One day, Mr. Schurrender called on me to answer a math question to which I quietly gave my answer. He could not hear my answer and asked me to speak up, which I thought I did. Apparently, he still couldn’t “hear” me.
Mr. Schurrender then asked me a different question. He asked me if I had any siblings. I told him yes; I had one sister. He asked how well we got along. I shared that we were very close and sometimes we got along better than other times. Mr. Schurrender then asked me what happened when we didn’t get along. I told him that we would get into an argument. He asked if some of those arguments made me feel angry. I said yes. He then asked what I did when I was angry with my sister. I explained that when I felt anger towards my sister, I would walk away and not talk to her. Now Mr. Schurrender was getting frustrated, because I think he was hoping I would say that when I get mad at my sister, I yell at her. And to this day, I very seldom yell. Mr. Schurrender then slowly closed his eyes and shook his head and said: “Come on, Susan; get made at me” and I spoke my answer as loudly as I could muster.
Linking this story to business, the notion to speak slower doesn’t always resonate—especially as we try to climb the proverbial corporate ladder. We’ve predominantly been raised to believe that when your boss asks you a question, you’d better have the right answer—and not only that—you’d better answer quickly, demonstrating your ability to act on your feet. This is the mindset I grew up with in the 70’s and 80’s; and it is similar today within the organizations with whom I partner. Things move fast. Time is money. Decisions need to be made, and if you want to move to the top, you’d better know your stuff and know it fast. There isn’t much room for pause.
I experienced this firsthand about 20 years ago when I participated in my first major client call with the partners of my firm and an outside consultant with whom we were considering a joint venture. Given that we were not all together physically, we each dialed into a conference call line.
For the first 30 minutes or so, I had been mostly observing and listening until such time when the client asked me a question. I didn’t answer right away, as I wanted to be thoughtful around what I had just heard and learned about him, his organization and his needs. I guess my pause was too long because within about 10 seconds, he said, “Hello? Are you still there?” It wasn’t so much what was said, but how it was said. I got scared, which forced me to speak slower, and as I started to answer the client’s question, I was immediately interrupted by one of my partners who I believe was trying to “save” me. And sure enough…later that afternoon, I received feedback that I need to learn to answer more immediately, so as to demonstrate my knowledge and confidence.
I felt like I was in high school again.
So, what does it mean to intentionally speak slower and in that be slow to speak in a way that adds value?
We already named a few benefits at the beginning of this post:
Connecting your emotions to what you are communicating
Effectively getting your point across
Opportunities to avoid misunderstanding through miscommunication
More presence and thoughtfulness in your response
In addition, through the stories I shared, we’ve also learned how talking slower can sometimes come with downsides, like:
Making a potentially negative impression
Creating fuzziness in your message
Losing the attention of your audience
But here’s the kicker…these last three bullet points are also relevant to those of us who speak too fast:
Speaking too fast can make a potentially negative impression because fast talkers can come across as arrogant, superficial or as a know-it-all. In this connection, fast talkers are often perceived as people who verbally manipulate others into doing or believing something. “Used car salesman” energy (no offense intended).
Speaking too fast can also cause fuzziness—a lack of clarity in your message, preventing others from fully understanding what you are trying to express and the meaning that underpins it.
Speaking too fast can cause you to lose the attention of your audience because they don’t perceive you as engaging or they might simply feel overwhelmed, the end result being that people may simply tune you out.
So, what you’re saying, Susan, is that I shouldn’t speak too fast; yet to speak slower can also have potential downsides. What do I do?
My vote remains to slow the cadence and speak slower because it causes you to THINK.
You’ve probably seen the meme…THINK…Is it T-rue / H-elpful / I-nspiring / N-ecessary / K-ind?
And here is where I think we’ve come full circle.
When you can commit to intentionally speak slower, you gain deeper understanding and capacity to be slow to speak. To be intentionally slow to speak comes with powerful opportunities for transformation. And Dialogue can help because it creates the conditions for you to:
(1) Listen to Fully Understand:
David Bohm often times spoke about Dialogue in a way where there were “no winners or losers.” This means you don’t have to win the argument when the conflict arises from different opinions that are being stated. Sharing opinions creates the diversity we need to birth new understandings. It’s in defending your opinions—where someone has to be right or wrong—we divide. When you listen to fully understand, you consider everyone’s perspective with curiosity and with true intention to learn, creating an opportunity to transform past your own view.
(2) Evoke Genuine Curiosity
My business partner, Joseph Jaworski, tells the story of a conversation he had with the late Warren Bennis. Joseph asked him one day, “What is the top characteristic of a great leader?” Warren answered, “Raised eyebrows.” When you genuinely approach anything with curiosity, it creates the conditions to consider others’ perspectives more deeply. In doing so, you enable opportunities for learning and innovation.
(3) Notice Assumptions
Everything is perception. We are raised in different families. We come from different economical backgrounds. We are born into different cultures. Everything is perception because we all have a set of life experiences unique to us which then informs our worldview. When we can accept this, we realize that most everything we conclude is an assumption or based upon an assumption. When we notice our assumptions, we can take ownership of our own story. Authentically sharing our own stories builds connection and deepens relationships in ways that are meaningful.
(4) Choose When to Speak
Stephen Covey states that we listen not to fully understand but instead to reply. Choosing not only to speak slower but when you will speak allows for an opportunity to consider these three questions before talking:
Have I heard what’s been said?
Is it my turn to speak?
Is what I will share in service to the other?
The late physicist, Dr. David Bohm, talked about sensitivity in his book On Dialogue…”knowing how to come in and how to not come in [to a conversation], noticing subtle cues…and your response to them…what’s happening inside of you, what’s happening [with the other]” being sensitive to the meaning underpinning the conversation (or lack of it).
When we speak slower and in that choose to be slow to speak, we create what is fundamental to every human life—that very thing that Bohm felt was the “cement that holds everything together”—MEANING.
How do you intend to create more meaningful conversations in your life and business? Please share your comments so we can learn together.
I help my clients create more effective, advanced, conscious contributions to business and society.