The Subtle Art Of Shutting The F*** Up
"Silence is one of the great arts of conversation." - Marcus Tullius Cicero
This week, we delve into the underrated skill of quietude, understanding its crucial role in effective leadership, negotiation, and the day-to-day of building a high-performing startup. Is there more wisdom in silence than we credit it for? Could our hushed moments be catalysts for breakthrough ideas? And when we listen – are we genuinely hearing, or merely waiting for our turn to speak?
TEDx: The Power Of Listening (William Ury)
Book: What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School (1984)
Silence restores the nervous system, helps us sustain our energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive. (HBR)
A Time for Direct Leadership: The Startup Dictatorship?
Leading a startup can often feel like running a dictatorship (maybe not to you!). You’re the single voice directing the strategy, making snap decisions, and often “dictating” the work to be done to your team. This autocratic style has its merits, particularly in the early stages or during rapid adjustments and turnarounds.
Steve Jobs was famous for his authoritative leadership, his unwavering belief in his vision meant his voice was the loudest and most influential in the room.
As your startup grows, it’s crucial to transition from this dictatorial approach. Democratic decision-making might be slower and feel like its costing you money and cycles, but it fosters creativity, broadens opportunities and it would be a tad arrogant to believe that because it’s your vision, you’re the only one who can see the solution!!
If you’re in ‘dictator’ mode, don’t stress, instead be clear with your team about why it’s needed and when it will change. Create some space or forum or call for open discussions where you take the role of a listener and learner.
You can have the same objective, but how you communicate is the difference between a leader versus a dictator.
Silent Leadership: The Power of Listening
There’s a common misconception in the world of startups: to be a successful leader, you must always be the loudest or have the last word. This belief stems from equating volume or finality with authority. But this isn’t necessarily true. Great leaders know that there’s power in silence, in listening, and sometimes, in consciously letting others have the last word.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. Known for his reserved demeanor, proves that leadership doesn’t mean dominating every conversation. His approach fosters a culture of collaboration and innovation, and has wholly transformed Microsoft.
The takeaway? Don’t be afraid of silence or worried about always having the final say. The power of a leader lies in their ability to listen, understand, and then respond — not in the volume of their voice.
Conversational Silence: Theory Meets Practice
The Theory of Conversational Silence explores the role and interpretation of silence in our conversations and its impact on effectiveness and relationship-building. The use of silence can shift dynamics and create opportunities in every scenario, from sales, fundraising to recruiting.
You’ve just made a sales pitch, and now you consciously pause letting silence fill the room. This act is not about being passive or hesitant; instead, it’s a strategic move. The ensuing silence can build pressure, prompting your potential client to break it, revealing learnings you can use. Your silence here isn’t empty – it’s filled with active listening, a signal of your respect for their thoughts.
Same during the hiring process. You’ve explained a job role to the candidate, stop. Your silence is an opportunity for them, a space to demonstrate their curiosity and critical thinking. This listening uncovers incredible insights about the candidate. Unprompted insights.
Silence isn’t merely the absence of noise. It’s a calculated pause, a powerful tool to gain insights and influence outcomes.
The Intent of Conversation: Know Your Goal
Before entering any conversation, you must understand what you aim to achieve. Make a sale, persuade an investor, solve a conflict or understand why engineering didn’t release last night!?
From sales to investor meetings, where founders think they have so much on the line, they approach these conversations as a ‘one-shot’ opportunity, where they must sell, convince, and close the deal. It’s really tough to do, but a more effective approach is to view the conversation as the beginning, a chance to introduce yourself and your solution, and then pass the baton. The aim isn’t to get the sale on the first call, but to lay the groundwork for a second call, that’s it.
If the goal of the conversation is understood, it provides a guide to when to speak, when to listen, and when to let silence reign. A second call, means you get to live to fight another day. Conversation pacing ensures that each interaction moves you closer to your goal.
You must know the purpose of the conversation you are in.
Active Listening: Beyond the Words
Active listening goes beyond just hearing words; (I am listening, but I do not hear you) it’s about processing the message being conveyed and then crafting an apt response. How can you craft a goal driven response before they have finished speaking? This is not tennis; conversation is collaborative; Are you engaged in conversation, or just waiting to respond?
Consider a high-stakes scenario. A customer, employee, recruit, investor express concerns – do you do what you always do, because you think it’s your job, jumping to appease their worries with assurances? Let silence linger show you are digesting their concerns. Then, acknowledge what they’ve said and address. Your silence here isn’t an awkward pause; it’s a signal that you are not only hearing but understanding.
The Strategy of Anticipation: Building Momentum with Silence
Silence isn’t just a conversation strategy; it can be a powerful tool in product launches as well. Sometimes, the best course of action is to stay silent, buckle down, and let your work speak for itself.
One more time, sometimes, to maximize impact, the best strategy is to shut up, do the work, and let the product speak for itself when the time is right.
How many times has a company announced something ground breaking, or a competitor closed a massive customer, or an industry shaking talent move, all without you even seeing it coming.
This practice exemplifies the subtle art of strategic silence.
Harnessing Silence for Innovation: Solitude as Strategy
Embracing silence isn’t just about conversations. Personal silence is a super power. Allowing our minds the freedom to roam, away from the noise, we create a space for introspection and strategic thinking. This silence-rich solitude sets the stage for breakthrough ideas to emerge.
Sitting in solitude at breakfast, or some other consistent moment in the day, that is truly yours to reflect, in absolute silence, no distractions, can only serve you (and others!). The Indian Hindu ritual of meditative silence: Mouna Vratham.
Bill Gates, takes a “Think Week,” deliberately isolating himself to focus on reading, contemplating, and strategizing about the future of his companies. Some of the most influential strategies at both Microsoft and his Foundation have come from this solitude.
Nassim Taleb said it best: “Your brain is most intelligent when you don’t instruct it on what to do – something people who take showers discover on occasion.”
The Subtle Art Of Never Shutting The F*** Up
While the merits of strategic silence are invaluable, the contrarian counterpoint – the power of speaking up. For founders, their passion, understanding, and relentless determination not only shape their StartUps early trajectory but also act as a powerful sales tool.
Founders are the greatest salespeople because their ability to sell goes beyond just knowing their product. Their infectious enthusiasm, their unyielding passion, and their steadfast belief in their vision inspire early adopters to believe in the journey, even when they understand that the product might not be perfect yet.
Airbnb’s founders serve as an apt example. Despite initial rejections, their determination to be heard eventually won over many investors, proving that sometimes, the best thing a founder can do is refuse to be silent.
“You don’t get what you don’t ask for” – a reminder of the importance of speaking up, especially during negotiations.
Striking the right balance is an art. It’s about knowing when to turn up the volume, when to bask in silence, and when to masterfully blend the two. That’s why this is a subtle art.
Your Challenge For The Week: The Listening Experiment
This week, choose a day or a meeting where you’re normally the loudest voice: just listen. Instead of leading and asserting opinions, choose to be an active listener. Repeat back what’s said, ask questions, dig deeper, and ask others’ opinions.
Yes, you might already have a well-formed idea about the outcome you want, but this challenge isn’t that granular. It’s about observing the dynamics when you shift from the role of a speaker to a listener. How this shift affects the atmosphere, who steps up to take the lead, what fresh insights emerge not just about the meeting’s agenda. Do you notice a change in team dynamics?
Leadership isn’t just about being heard; it’s also about hearing others. And sometimes, the subtle art of shutting the f*** up creates an opportunity for profound insights.
Until next Sunday, continue to challenge the status quo.
– James (LIn)
P.S. Silence can also be a response. If you have thoughts on this topic or want to share your experiences, I’m all ears. To quote Ryan Holiday: “…all I ask, if you decide to email me back, is that you’re not just thinking aloud.”
P.P.S. Thank you. Nearly 11k subscribers, so many responses, so many conversations with founders around the world, we launched the StartUp To ScaleUp community for first time founders to lean in, get into the weeds and accelerate their journey.