Most business leaders don’t share their problems even when they should. Here’s how you can get them talking by using the power of silence

David Fuller

Beads of sweat dripped off his forehead as he looked at me and contemplated his answer. I’d just asked him what was holding him back from the success that seemed to elude him, even though he had been laying out the plans for months.

I could see his mind turning, the beads of sweat coming more profusely. I could almost hear the internal dialogue: Should he risk telling me? What would I think?

I knew the question was going deep, and the answer was heavy.

I waited. Even though it was barely a minute or two, the time crawled and it seemed like hours.

I thought I knew the answer, and I wanted to respond for him. I wanted to put words in his mouth. But I knew that would ruin the moment.

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I so wanted to lift the weight with more words, but I just let the silence do the heavy lifting.

There’s a saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. How often do we rush in and talk when we should be listening – when there should be silence? So fearful are we that there could be an awkward silence that we want to rescue people in our conversations. But when we do this, we’re failing ourselves and the ones we’re conversing with.

Has the art of listening been lost in this digital age? When did you last sit down with your family, co-workers or employees and have a meaningful conversation?

My friends who work in plants or job sites tell me they once had lively conversations during lunch. This delightful interchange has been replaced by a bunch of people sitting around a lunch room looking at their devices.

You used to be able to sit on a plane, train or automobile and talk to the person next to you. Now those enjoyable and interesting conversations have been replaced by movies, Facebook, games and texting. Not only do we live in a world increasingly filled with solitary people, we’re losing the ability to talk deeply. And, more importantly, we’ve forgotten the art of conversing and listening.

“So what?” you say. “Those conversations around the lunch room, kitchen table or in the car were about nothing important anyway. Who cares if we don’t talk as much or remember how to listen effectively?”

When we fail to have deep conversations, we’re part of the cause of the great devastation unleashed on the world. Maybe the reason for the greatest issue of our age – loneliness – is our mediocre, inconsiderate attitude and our inability to care for one another.

This loneliness affects all of society – but some of the loneliest people are those who run businesses.

Why are business leaders lonely?

Most business leaders feel that the success or failure of their organization starts and ends with them.

When things go well, they feel that if they share the success, there will be a lineup of people with their hands out asking for more of something. So they keep it quiet.

When things are going badly, they feel that if they share their fears, pain or struggles, they’ll be seen as weak or a failure and those around them will jump ship. They often feel they don’t have safe places to talk about things. And if they did, who would understand? They don’t want to burden their spouses with it. Their friends don’t understand. They can’t talk to their employees. Everyone else has their own struggles, so they don’t share, and they don’t ask.

There are three things we need to do if we want to make the world a better place:

  • be curious about people;
  • stay alert to what’s going on with the person we’re talking with;
  • ask lots of questions and wait for the answers.

We must start being curious (which involves putting aside our fear that we’re missing something on our devices) and try to learn more about the person we’re communicating with.

The waiting paid off for my client. Silence had done the heavy lifting, and he had a profound answer that changed his life.

How about letting a compassionate silence do some heavy lifting for you this week and see what transpires?

Dave Fuller, MBA, is an award-winning business coach and a partner with Pivotleader Inc.

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