Sunday, October 25, 2020

Shut up and listen

"Silence is the weapon," writes Robert A. Caro in his 2019 book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. "Silence and the people's need to fill it." 

Caro is writing about an interviewing trick he uses when researching the biographies he writes about leaders and politicians. The premise is that we each have a tendency to fill the void of silence when we are talking with someone. There's a discomfort in a conversation if there's a bit of a lull and to fend off that discomfort our instinct is to occupy it with the sound of our own voices.

When interviewing someone, whether as a journalist, a hiring manager, a teacher, or anyone else, knowing that the person we're speaking with is likely to be the most revealing during these momentary silences is an important mechanism to have at our disposal. It might be painful as a teacher to stand in front of a class full of silent students, but giving them time to fill the void after a question is posed can be just the thing to engage the entire class in a robust discussion.

Caro's technique is one I've used for years when I am researching or reporting for an article or book. It's also one that I've come to find useful in teaching. And it's one I pass on to students in my writing class, encouraging them to embrace it as well.

Because I get paid to talk for a living, I often find myself tempted to talk too much. Not just in my professional life, but in my personal life as well.

I bring all of this up because it seems increasingly clear that many people have a hard time standing down when others are speaking. Too often, a casual conversation devolves into each party talking over one another. Or, a stage for public discourse results in one party interrupting the other, muttering under his or her breath, or speaking loudly over everyone else in the room.

The end result is that whoever is speaking rarely hears anyone but himself or herself. When I was asked to give a talk to prospective scholarship students who were about to be interviewed by a faculty committee at Bethany College in West Virginia, I joked (sort of) with them that they should let the faculty interviewer speak as much as possible because the end result would be that the faculty member would come away believing it was the smartest conversation they ever had.

But vying to fill every silence, to stave off others' ability to contribute does nothing to broaden our outlook or to deepen our understanding that ours is not the only view in the air. If we have a hope of ever reaching consensus or getting unstuck when we are tackling a particularly challenging task, the right thing is to force ourselves to listen to others, even when we find it painful to do so - even, and especially, if their views are wildly opposed to our own. We should certainly speak up and let our voices be heard, but we should just as forcefully learn to listen. Now this is, of course, excluding views that are outright hateful or oppressive in nature. But reasonable differences in opinion should always get equal airtime to the extent that they are productive in nature.

Need help getting started learning the art of active listening? Caro writes that his technique of doing this was to take his pen and write "SU" over and over in the margins of his notes when he was interviewing. It was shorthand to remind himself to shut up. It wouldn't hurt and it is likely to help if each of us learned to shut up and listen from time to time. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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