Should I Speak Up or Shut Up?


Isn’t it a learned art?  Knowing when to say something, when not to, or how to simply wait for a better moment to be heard?

I well remember the experience where I learned this at a new level.  I was in a board meeting, maybe 15 years ago now, in many ways leading this meeting.  My boss was seated next to me.  Someone raised a question which I was about to answer when my boss gently nudged me saying, “Wait, they’re going to come up with it themselves.”

Sure enough, after a bit more dialogue one of the board members said the exact thing I was going to say moments earlier.  But because it was their idea, the group responded even more enthusiastically.

This experience left a real impression and was a teaching moment in my growing desire to be absolutely tactful and timely as a communicator.  Just because we know something, doesn’t mean we should be the one to say it, or that it needs to be said at all.

I’ve practiced this art over the years with both success and failure.  Numerous times I’ve thought, “I talked too much,” or in other moments, “I wish someone else had said it.”

Still, when you cultivate an awareness and keep practicing, you do improve.  One measure is reading people’s eyes, be they in front of me individually, or in an audience of thousands listening from a distance.  Discerning what’s behind their eyes and what’s not being said, becomes THE catalyst for learning what should be said or shouldn’t.

Women in particular, are often challenged with this practice.  We often say whatever comes to mind, however and whenever we can get a word in edge-wise.

One ideal measure for “speak up or shut up” is asking, “If I’m not really heard or given credibility for saying it, do I really want to say it at all?”

I think not.  In fact, NOT saying something is often more powerful than saying it.  Especially when the listener knows exactly what you want to say but instead, you hold back.

Writing is the same as speaking. I practice going over everything I write, even simple emails, deleting every single word that isn’t necessary. It’s a great exercise and over time people will rave over your ability to say it, and say it to the point.

I’ve had my share of memorable mistakes, in parenting, speaking, and leading, but am bound and determined to improve, remembering how famed speaking expert Dale Carnegie puts it,

“An effective speaker knows that the success or failure of his talk is not for him to decide – it will be decided in the minds and hearts of his hearers.”

So more often than not my lips are sealed. And I get the sense I’m still heard loud and clear.

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