If You Want People to Listen, Stop Talking

min read

Effective leaders know when to be silent, creating space for others to be their best selves.

Stepping stones across water.
Credit: BBA Photography / Shutterstock © 2018

This post is part of a series of reprints of blogs written by Jim Bruce for Tuesday Reading. Read more about Jim in the first blog in the series.

Today's Tuesday Reading, "If You Want People to Listen, Stop Talking," comes from the pen of Peter Bregman and appeared in the Harvard Business Review blog on May 25, 2015.1 Bergman is CEO of Bergman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and organizations through programs, consulting, and coaching. He is also author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.

In this essay Bergman focuses on "George," who, in meetings, was silent more than anyone who spoke (lots of people never say anything) and often was the last to speak, yet was a master persuader.

For many, silence equals absence. But George was not absently or passively silent; he was listening. In his silence he was carefully listening to what was said and also to what was not being said. By hearing what was not being said, he was in a better position to hear the full truth.

When George did speak, he was able to articulate what each individual had said. As he spoke, he looked at the individual to acknowledge what had been said and then was able to link it to the larger issue under discussion. Because he was clear in his reporting, each individual knew that he or she had been heard correctly. So, they did not need to correct or argue with him. Because George had listened carefully, he heard and was able to learn from others, and he was able to shift his views to come to a better solution to the issues at hand.

Sometimes silence can help you make connections. Listening tends to soften both you and the speaker, resulting in an increased willingness to continue listening and to incorporate each other's perspectives.

Silence is not a game you can use to manipulate the views of others. That approach will likely backfire—badly. Actually, to listen carefully is best seen as a sign of respect.

Being thoughtfully silent is difficult. It's uncomfortable. It demands that we listen to perspectives we disagree with and to people we may not like. Yet it's what teamwork and being a leader call us to do. As we listen, we position ourselves to better understand and to help each individual connect their desires, perspectives, and interests with the larger result we all want to accomplish.

As persuasive leaders, when we are silent, we offer space for others to step into. Lau Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher (6th century BCE) wrote, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, 'We did it ourselves.'"

Bergman put it this way: "Silence, followed by a few well-chosen words, is our best bet at achieving this leadership ideal."

Perhaps, you will want to practice saying less and listening more as you go through your week. You just may find that this leads to a more effective you.


  1. Peter Bregman, "If You Want People to Listen, Stop Talking," Harvard Business Review, May 25, 2015.

Jim Bruce is Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates and retired Professor of Electrical Engineering and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

© 2018 Jim Bruce.