“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln

“If you can’t add value to silence, then shut up.” – Lou Holtz

At the onset of every new year, yours truly, along with millions and millions of others, adopt a set of resolutions for personal improvement. Here is what I posted January 3 on my Twitter page http://twitter.com/herschelcat: “Fully use skill sets, maintain stamina, avoid anger, listen better, read more, always remain positive, encourage others.”

Every year, I remind myself that Darwin gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason. And yet the PR community puts the most value on verbal and written expression, but not necessarily on listening skills. Listening, hearing, being cerebral and making every verbal utterance count is a time-tested key to success.


I remember oh so well, a key executive with an extremely high IQ who just couldn’t wait to answer a question. In many cases, he was answering before the question had been fully articulated. I carefully brought this habit to his attention and his reply was along the lines of wouldn’t the reporter/analyst/investor/customer question his intelligence if he paused before answering? I replied that the questioner would think that he was thoughtful, adding that a well-conceived answer is better than some rushed gaffe. Once the missile is out of the silo, there is no way to bring it back.

He later agreed to recite silently, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” before responding. By adopting this technique, he was actually listening and hearing the question, contemplating his answer, and then after all of that, responding. This is the key to constructive listening.

This may sound obvious and easy, but it is really not. It is human nature to want to be liked, to be social and to participate. The other night over adult beverages with two extremely well spoken and driven colleagues, I realized it was going to be difficult to get a word in edgewise. So I practiced listening and hearing. There was nothing so important being discussed that I had to add value. After a short period, they seemed to notice my reflective mood and asked me for my opinion. I then weighed in with some thoughts that at a minimum proved that I was listening and hearing.

Lately I have been subjected to a series of telephone interviews, which is not the easiest skill to master. This process reminds me of when to invest and when to sell stocks. When is it time to buy and when is it time to take your profit and get out of the market? The same is true here. When is it time to be content with your answer and simply stop talking? The times that you are silent are just as important, if not more important, than when you are talking.

A recent blog post, “New Grad Life” http://newgradlife.blogspot.com/2010/01/job-interview-interview-help-interview_19.html provides some useful pointers for new job hunters (and veteran job hunters) about the time and place rule for talking and for silence, particularly on a phone interview.

Give short answers,” wrote Kelly Aldridge. “Many people talk too much when they are nervous. This is especially easy to do in a phone interview, because you don’t have the other person’s visual cues to indicate when it’s their turn to talk. To make sure you don’t make this mistake, only talk long enough to answer the question. A moment of silence, while it might seem awkward to you, lets the interviewer know that you are done.”

Keep in mind that the hiring manager, the recruiter or the HR rep who is conducting the interview is trying to determine how you would fit into an organization. Is she/he a “team player?” That is the key question that needs to be asked and answered.

This is not the time to talk yourself out of a job. This is the time to be an engaged, contemplative and constructive listener. It is time to not only listen, but to hear as well.