One day during a coaching session, an executive asked me, “How do I know if I’m talking too much?”
The question had emerged from the results of confidential interviews I had conducted at the executive’s request. I had created a document which included de-identified “themes” which emerged during my interaction with his colleagues. One tiny piece of feedback included this thought: “I wish he could listen a bit more and talk a bit less.” The thought had struck a nerve with my client.
My response was a bit of a paradox: “Tell me more.”
Initially, he laughed, and then he took a deep breath and paused, followed by: “I know that I can talk a lot – it’s part of the job as the boss, I guess.”
“And how has talking helped serve you in your role as a leader?” I queried.
“Well, we work in an industry that is constantly changing. Knowing how to adapt and stay nimble takes a lot of information about our company, the competition, and what needs to be done?”
I replied: “I’m curious why it’s important for you.”
What followed was a deep dive by my client into an appreciation of his well-developed* capabilities of educating, informing, and motivating people. He had risen through the ranks of his company as the guy who could come up with answers and “sell” his ideas to those around him. He had become the “go-to” person in the company when it came to innovative ideas and sales. And for it, he had made it to the C-Suite.
Now he was faced with a dual-edged dilemma. He knew how to communicate and he knew it had made him effective. And yet, even before he received the feedback, he had already sensed that he was talking too much and that was limiting him.
In coaching, we invite curiosity and awareness about our developmental needs. And then we explore with the client what options and choices they can make. My client spent a number of sessions understanding how communicating verbally had served him, and appreciating that there were times that it had cost him and made him less effective.
He developed an action plan and tried different techniques to build awareness in real-time and, by intention, to make different choices. Several sessions later I asked him about the results.
“Well, now I pause more and assess how effective my communication is.”
I also have created a sort of ‘comment to question’ ratio that I use. When I make a point, I stop for a minute and see whether questions arise.“
“And if they don’t?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “I just ask the others in the room open-ended questions. Anything from, How do you interpret that point, to what other ideas would you add?”
“And then I just listen.” It’s taking some practice, but I’m getting used to it.”
“And what are you noticing?”
“Well, there is much more discussion and I feel liberated in a way. I don’t have to come up with all of the ideas and make a point. It’s exciting to see others jump in where I have now created gaps. Amazingly, some of the ideas I feel like saying are now emerging from others!”
I smiled to hear my client relate this story and continued to help him reinforce what we call his “expansion of range” as a leader.
That night I thought about the times I have spoken too much, or experienced others who have monopolized a conversation – be it at a dinner party or a company meeting. And I reflected on how powerful it can be to gain awareness of how others experience us. Each of us can explore our more well-developed areas – and, by choice expand our range into those that are less developed.*
We all have the ability to grow and learn. I know I do.
Now it’s time for me to pause…. I’d be interested in your thoughts!
*The concepts of “well-developed” and “less-developed” are taught and used at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) in Cape Cod.
Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches is an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC). He is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry.