Shut Up!

Clarity isn't just about being understood. It's also about understanding. And the most powerful lesson in active listening I've ever been given was simply this: Shut up.

People make all kinds of noise about various active listening techniques. My aim isn't to knock those techniques - but to offer an alternative. I believe for all the mirroring, and nodding, and repeating back we're taught to do, we often get it wrong. Put simply, we do it too much. Once upon a time, I was on an advanced leadership course and one segment was all about active listening. We were a room full of consultants, so of course we already knew all this stuff. We were all asked to list the most effective techniques for active listening that we used. As we did, the instructor captured them on a flip chart at the front of the room:
  • Use open body language;
  • Ask open-ended questions;
  • make encouraging noises like 'mmm hmm' and 'go-on';
  • paraphrase what's being said;
  • check understanding; etc...
Once we had a good list, and were feeling like we'd pretty much licked it, the instructor did something I'll never forget. He pulled out a great big red marker and with a squeaky scrape down the page he slowly, agonisingly crossed them all out with a big, page-filling 'X'. He then tore off the sheet, crumpled it up, then blue-tacked it to the wall so we could all see our words slashed out, and he wrote two words on the blank page underneath:

"Shut up"

"That's it" he said: "Shut up." It's that simple. And to prove the point he asked us to do one of those artificial group exercises that makes everyone roll their eyes. He asked us to think of one emotional, personal story we wouldn't mind sharing with one other person in the group. Then, our job was to listen to the other person tell their story for five minutes, and switch roles. The catch was that as listeners, we had to abandon everything we knew about active listening, and try just shutting up.

It was miraculous. You've never felt so listened to in your life. Five minutes, it turns out, when you're truly being listened to, can feel like a very, long, comfortable time. You see, when you know you're not going to be interrupted, you're not going to be drawn down a tangent sparked by something you just happen to have said last, when you know you're not going to be jumped in upon when you pause to take a breath, as a speaker, you can relax. You can actually tell your story. You can build up points without fear of being drawn down a rabbit warren of listening to the other person say "Yes! I know what you mean! I had that when.... blah blah blah" and you can make your whole argument in peace. I shared way more than I intended to that day in that little exercise, and I've never, never forgotten that lesson: Shut up.

The problem is, while the active listening techniques we read about are well-meaning, and while in theory they're even correct, as social animals we apply them wrong. We have an insatiable apetite to autobiographise. (that's totally a word). With the best intentions in the world, we're dying to let the person talking to us know that we really, really understand them, and one of the best ways we can prove it to them is by telling them just how their circumstance also applies to us. "I know what you mean!" we tell them. Followed by giving them 'proof'.
Wonderful intention, but it's an interruption. And for gaining clarity, it just doesn't hold a candle to shutting up. So much more comes out in the silence of shutting up and your listener feels great.

Try it. Watch them. You think the silence that normally occupies a conversation will be uncomfortable if you let it draw out? Ha! That's only if you happen to be Anglo-Saxon, or even more so if you're Latin. It's just a cultural thing. Ignore it. The Japanese are quite happy with more silence. Use total silence to let your speaker know they have complete freedom. Don't even give an 'mmm hmm'. Watch the relief in their eyes when they realise it's not just a mirage, but you really aren't going to interrupt them when they pause for a breath or to collect their thoughts. Let them finish, and just stay quiet, looking at them with an open, expectant face. Then, when they don't say anything, stay quiet some more, and wait until they firmly declare that they're done, and ask you for a response.

You'll have so much more clarity, and it's the greatest gift you'll give someone this week.

Clarity Rule: Shut Up


  1. Welcome to the conversation, mate...:)

    Great start with those two posts...