I have never needed to be the loudest person in the room, or the one who talks first, or the most. I am also a reflective thinker: Having ample time to consider a situation or problem before I give my input usually results in a more significant and helpful perspective. My musings aid my strategic thinking. But there have been numerous situations where someone has said “I want to know what Katherine thinks” or “Katherine hasn’t spoken yet, so let’s hear from her.”
After a moment like that, I find myself reflecting on my own behavior. Why didn’t I talk earlier? Why did it get to the point that someone else, noting my silence, asked me to speak? Wouldn’t it be better if I had spoken before it reached that point? Sometimes these reflections lead me to think I need to change.
Then I read assistant management professor Michael Parke’s recent paper, “How Strategic Silence Enables Employee Voice to be Valued and Rewarded.” Professor Parke spoke to Wharton Business Daily about his research, which shows that employees like myself are often practicing strategic silence. Specifically, they consider three things:
- Issue relevance — how does my speaking up align with the goals of the recipient and/or the current situation?
- Issue readiness — am I ready to talk now or do I need more data to find a solution or think through some other aspect of the problem or idea?
- Target responsiveness — is the person who will listen to my perspective in the right cognitive frame (i.e. not too busy or in the proper emotional state) to hear my message?
With that in mind, I thought back on the last time this happened to me and I see these three considerations at play. When I am with senior leadership and my peers, I prefer to “read the room” by hearing other perspectives before I share mine. In my experience, most people want to share their perspectives first and then they are more ready to hear what others think.
There are also instances where too many perspectives can be distracting and counterproductive. If I am not a decision maker, then how relevant is my perspective? Will my perspective change the direction that we might take? If not, then I often don’t feel the need to share it.
Finally, as a communications professional, one key factor I consider is timing. Sharing something before the recipient is ready to hear it can often backfire and make for some challenging conversations. I prefer to wait for the right moment and what better opportunity is there than when the recipient specifically asks for my opinion?
So, if you ever worry that your hesitation to speak is a negative, recall Professor Parke’s three elements of strategic silence and take heart in knowing that sometimes being silent at first helps you talk later at just the right time.
Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and donor relations for Wharton External Affairs.