Most of us learn when and how to respond in order to get along with others at an early age. In the elementary school years we learned that there are boundaries to when and where you can say things that you think. As we get older and mature, we also learn to listen – hopefully. Although it is sometimes amazing that some very experienced professionals have lost their filter on when to listen to someone, keep their thoughts to themselves and then respond when it is productive and useful in business disputes and transactions.
In my practice, I have found that some of the most bright and knowledgeable people simply cannot restrain themselves from exploding into commentary, criticism or downright insulting language when they feel that their clients’ interests are not being fully represented in a discussion. As most business folks can attest, lawyers (especially) who can’t seem to work with a group of people to get a deal done, resolve a contract dispute or simply project a personality that encourages others to move forward towards a mutual goal can be obstructive or even destructive to the process.
On the other hand, some of the most successful people in the business world have learned the simple art of not responding. This is not a sign of weakness or lack of skill and knowledge. Instead, it is a way to pause, think and also consider what other parties in the discussion are saying and meaning by what they say.
Litigators probably see this more often than any other group of attorneys. And they will tell you that time after time, letting an opponent drone on and on gives them an advantage, as they find out something they didn’t know and possibly would never have been disclosed. I have seen attorneys literally hang themselves and their clients by not resisting the urge to sit down and stop talking in an attempt to emphasize their position.
On the other hand, those who don’t respond after hearing a diatribe, often end up with an advantage simply by not talking.
The same is true in the business world, especially in multiparty negotiations. Sure, whether you practice law or finance or real estate, there’s always a fear that if you don’t project yourself aggressively and often that you may be perceived as being ineffective. However, experience often shows that there are few successful people that look for this as a positive trait in their opponent or person they’re negotiating with. More often than not, the lack of a response or delayed response is both appreciated and helps to move the discussion forward. There are folks that will insist they want the bulldog who as an attorney or a broker will get in people’s faces, jam fingers at them and say essentially it is “my way or the highway.” The press has often not done a good job of showing that these people get marginalized in their business and by their own colleagues.
Many more times, the pensive and thoughtful professional is the one who will get repeat business and form strong relationships in his or her industry.
Notwithstanding all of the above, there is certainly a time to speak up and make sure that you or your client’s position is clearly heard and understood. However picking those times is crucial. The curse of many teens is that too often they know what they want to say and what the goal is, but they simply cannot stop themselves from speaking out loudly and abrasively. How well do that work out? As you grow older though you learn to pick your battles and appreciate the power of silence and the ability to truly listen to other people in business and law.
Honing the skill and truly knowing when not to respond and then speak up when appropriate is a task that most of us will struggle with through our professional lives, but ought to be at the forefront of our minds every time we step in to meeting or have a conference call. It will pay dividends.