2016 goals: Less talking, better listening

A few months ago my boss told me that I need to be careful about not giving other people a chance to talk in meetings. She noted that as one of the more experienced people on our team I have a lot to contribute and should, but she suggested I wait a bit to give newer people a chance to speak up. I took the feedback to heart and was trying to do better. Trying and failing. I am told that a team member recently complained about me dominating our team meetings. Clearly, I need to do a lot better.

The funny thing is I used to be a quiet person. Painfully quiet. I also generally hate talking about myself. I can still be this way in situations where I don’t know many people, but over the years I’ve conditioned myself to speak. It is no fun being the girl who stands against the wall hoping someone will talk to her because it is really depressing when they don’t.

I was told (both directly and in articles by experts) that I needed to speak up to be noticed, to be respected, to be liked. I started to “fake it until I make it” by forcing myself to speak up no matter how forced it felt. Over the course of a couple of decades that forced behavior became habit, and that habit has clearly gone too far.

I think of a Kurt Vonnegut quote (that was brought to my attention in this post on Becoming SuperMommy): “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” It doesn’t matter that on the inside I still feel like a quiet, introvert. That is not what people see, so that is not who I am. I am the loud, gregarious, and often obnoxious creature I’ve created.

There are two key reasons why I feel compelled to talk a lot in certain situations:

  • I want to make connections with people. I’m socially awkward but desperately want to be liked. Often this takes the form of someone talking about something then me piling on with a related story in an effort to relate. Sometimes this is okay, but I realize (unfortunately, after the fact) that this can result in looking like I’m trying to make everything about me.
  • I want to prove that I am qualified. I don’t have impostor syndrome. I have confidence in my own abilities. I do, however, often worry that others may not think I am not qualified or knowledgeable, which causes me to feel like I have to constantly show my knowledge. Early in my career this may have been beneficial, but when I am with people who know already my qualifications this can make me seem like a know-it-all.

Not only does all this talking lean toward a tendency to be loud and overbearing, but once I get to talking my normally privacy-oriented brain forgets about filtering (particularly if alcohol is involved). I start out sayings things that are perfectly reasonable then deteriorate into embarrassing oversharing or awkward faux pas. I have a long memory for these verbal mistakes and continue to be haunted by stupid things I have said even decades after I said them.

I really need to learn to shut up.

I created this talking habit, and it is deeply, deeply ingrained. That is why, despite awareness and self-reflection, I am having trouble changing. I need to find a way to talk less.

The second part of my goal is better listening. A more obvious two-part goal would be “talk less, listen more,” but I worry that just listening “more” could feel very passive. If it feels too passive I am likely to default back to talking.

Better listening, to me, involves focusing on the quality of my focus and trying to make connections with people through what they are saying to me instead of what I can say to them. Maybe I can learn to pick up on those social cues I so often seem to miss.

Just telling myself to shut up and listen hasn’t been working. Here are some ideas I have to achieve less talking and better listening in the new year:

  • Track my comments during team meetings. The meetings where I have the greatest tendency to talk too much are our team meetings. It’s is a small group (seven people), and the meetings tend to be very unstructured. There is a lot of “What does everyone think about this?” which is when I get in trouble with dominating the discussion. I plan to track in my notes how many times I am commenting. Unless there is something super important I should probably only have one or two turns per one hour meeting, and they should be brief.
  • Talk last. If I do have something to say I will try to wait until everyone else has spoken (unless we are going in some sort of specific order).
  • Close my laptop. I have been using One Note because I like to be able to search my notes later and I am horrible at organizing paper. Unfortunately, having my laptop open during meetings can be a distraction to me and creates an obstacle between me and the other people in the room. I think I will achieve better listening by closing my laptop (unless absolutely needed for meeting content) and taking paper notes. I will then have to transcribe my notes, which is a little inefficient, but I think the overall benefit will be greater than the time lost. Luckily, I’m a fast typist.
  • Put down my phone. Remember when phones were communication devices? While I do see value in social media in moderation, I need to park my phone by the door when I come home and focus on the people around me more.

I’m not ashamed to use my voice. I am immensely proud when some young women I have worked with have told me that they admire how I speak up in meetings and want to emulate me. Still, a voice (like any tool) can be over-used, which makes it less effective.

I hate that habits that I forced on myself to try to improve relationships and gain respect are now having the exact opposite effect. I’ve traded one type of social ineptness for another. Here’s hoping I can find some balance.

Do you have any big goals for 2016? Share them in the comments.

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