Learn to Shut Up

I am a Chatty Cathy; a stereotypical opinionated, loud, and talkative American. I have a deep, calming voice that I frankly like the sound of. My British partner often complains that I come across as more confident than I intend. I like getting involved in deep discussions, making my case, winning arguments. I talk a lot.

My talkativeness hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, ever been a problem before. Despite making my opinions known, I make a point to ask meaningful questions, ensure I listen to folks, and give them space to contribute to the conversation. I try to be an ally; I’m mindful of quieter and/or introverted participants, I ask folks their opinions, and if someone gets interrupted I bring the conversation back to them. Since becoming a manager I put a lot of work into being more mindful in conversations to avoid dominating them. It’s not enough.

Let me tell you a story.[1] I manage a team I used to be a member of. Colleagues who were my peers became my direct reports overnight. Before becoming manager, I regularly contributed to the conversation, giving my thoughts on our work, priorities, syntax, etc. Everything. When I became manager I didn’t change my approach - I still voiced my thoughts as before.

Fast forward a few months and I’m wondering why engagement is down. Folks who previously operated with a high level of autonomy now looked to me for guidance on even smaller, inconsequential decisions. While our daily standups remained chatty, our other ceremonies devolved to resemble a monologue, with me raising discussion points, met with crickets, and responding to my own questions.

What went wrong? I worried about deteriorating morale and tried to find ways to improve it. I faked it till I made it, killing them with kindness, coating my words with sugar so sweet they risked cavities. I organised after work drinks, cut down on the workload, and made clear my priorities: low-stress environment, interesting work, focus on personal development. None of it made much of a difference.

I felt pretty low. Imposter syndrome kicked in hard. I managed people, products, and processes for almost a decade, but this small team broke me. No, it exposed me. I doubted my own abilities. I questioned if my move to engineering management was the right one.

With what felt like few options left I tried one last thing. I shut up. It worked.

This is not as easy as it sounds. I am responsible for leading our team, representing us to senior management and stakeholders. I facilitate several meetings a week. I also struggle with uncomfortable silences, especially ones I can fill with my own opinions. And I almost always have an opinion.

So, how did I do it? Well, I still am doing it; it’s a process, one I have yet to perfect. But I found these approaches tend to work pretty well:

  1. Be mindful. If you are not aware of yourself, how can you be aware of much else? I try to be conscious of when I am dominating a conversation, or when others are not contributing.
  2. Embrace silence. Most people are uncomfortable with silence in a group conversation. It is awkward! I opted to use that to my advantage: if I can make the silence less awkward for me than others, then I can outlast them, and they need to contribute.
  3. Empower others. There are plenty of reasons people don’t contribute to discussions. They could doubt their ideas, fear public speaking, not be paying attention, have something at home that’s occupying their mind, or something else. Ask them how they like to contribute, and encourage them to use that approach. I have a direct report who prefers Slack over speech. Not my thing, but happy to accommodate for them!
  4. Create opportunities. Comfort in contributing comes from practice. If you have a dedicated Scrum Master, consider rotating meeting facilitation. Other ways to create opportunities include encouraging folks to present at knowledge shares / lightning talks / show and tells,
  5. Ask opinions. Some folks are just too damned polite; they avoid offering their thoughts unless explicitly asked. Others are shy, or avoid interjecting. As manager, it’s your job to give them space and a voice. If I notice someone on my team has not been involved in a conversation, I make sure to ask them what they think.

A challenge with those five points above is that four of them require you to speak. That’s the opposite of shutting up! However, if done right, one can adopt these tactics while still limiting speaking time.

I talk too much and it’s been a problem. I’m working on it and will keep doing so.

[1]: names are fake, situation slightly contrived

Published: 5/27/2022

tags: management, engineering, communication