Monday, April 21, 2014

Say Fewer, Better Things

Last week, while beginning a new project with a new client, an interesting observation was made of me by the client. As is usual with a new project, the week was filled with meetings and discussions. And more than once the project sponsor explicitly said to me, "Feel free to jump in here as well." Not in a snarky way mind you, he just wanted to make sure I'm not waiting to speak and that my insights are brought to the group. At one point he said, "I take it you're the strong silent type, eh?"

Well, I like to think so.

In general it got me thinking, though. It's no secret that I'm very much an introvert, and that's okay. So for the most part I have a natural tendency to prefer not speaking over speaking. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that there's more to it than that.

As it turns out, in a social gathering I'm surprisingly, well, social. I'm happy to crack a joke or tell a story, as long as I don't become too much a center of attention. If I notice that happening, I start to lose my train of thought. In small groups though it's not a problem. In a work setting, however, I tend not to jump in so much. It's not that I'm waiting for my turn to speak, it's that I'm waiting for my turn to add something of value.

This is intentional. And I think it's a skill worth developing.

I've had my fair share of meetings with participants who just like to be the center of the meeting. For lack of a better description, they like to hear themselves talk. The presence of this phenomenon varies wildly depending on the client/project. (Luckily my current project is staffed entirely by professionals who are sharp and to the point, for which I humbly thank the powers that be.) But I explicitly make it a point to try not to be this person.

Understand that this isn't because I don't want to speak. This is because I do want to listen. I don't need (or even really want) to be the center of attention. I don't need to "take over" the meeting. My goal is to simply contribute value. And I find that I can more meaningfully contribute value through listening than through speaking.

I'll talk at some point. Oh, I will definitely talk. And believe me, I'm full of opinions. But in the scope of a productive group discussion are all of those opinions relevant? Not really. So I can "take that offline" in most cases. A lot of that, while potentially insightful and valuable, doesn't necessarily add value to the discussion at hand. So rather than take the value I already know and try to adjust the meeting/discussion/etc. to fit my value, I'd rather absorb the meeting/discussion/etc. and create new value which I don't already know which targets the topic at hand.

That is, rather than steer the meeting toward myself, I'd rather steer myself toward the meeting. And doing so involves more listening than talking. Sometimes a lot more.

In doing so, I avoid saying too much. Other people in the meeting can point out the obvious things, or can brainstorm and openly steer their trains of thought. What I'll do is follow along and observe, and when I have a point to make I'll make it. I find this maximizes the insightfulness and value of my points, even if they're few and far between. And that's a good thing. I'd rather be the guy who made one point which nobody else had thought of than the guy who made a lot of points which everybody else already knew. The latter may have been more the center of attention, but the former added more value.

Listen. Observe. Meticulously construct a mental model of what's being discussed. Examine that model. And when the room is stuck on a discussion, pull from that model a resolution to that discussion. After all, concluding a discussion with a meaningful resolution is a lot more valuable than having participated in that discussion with everybody else.

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