What You Don’t Say is as Important as What You Do Say

Hey, do you know what time it is?

If you just looked at a clock and were prepared to tell me “It’s 8:30” or “It’s noon” or some other time, you’re probably just trying to be helpful. But that’s not always the best communications strategy.

When communicating in business situations – especially when what you’re saying is representing the entire organization – we must practice the following 3-step process: first, really listen to the question that’s being asked; next, answer ONLY the question that is asked; and then, stop talking.

So, the answer to my first question would be either: yes, or no. What I asked was “Do you know what time it is?” Even though you can probably safely assume that what I really want to know is the actual time, for many reasons, making me ask the follow up question “Ok, so what time is it?” can be beneficial for you.

This creates a dialogue. The person asking you the questions may have a brief reaction of frustration after that first response, but by the end of the conversation, they will notice how many of their questions you answered – because you gave them the opportunity to ask more questions.

If your response makes an assumption about what their question really means, or anticipates what other questions they might ask, then you take away their ability to feel like they were able to ask all their questions. And when they do think of other questions, you have no other information left to share.

In sensitive or crisis situations, this discipline is critical to managing your message and reputation, and keeping audiences calm, informed and supportive.

We also use this strategy with good news. Even if we know all the details of a “good news” story, we may not want to give everything away all at once. This allows you to create a steady drip of continued positive stories and engagement that will last far longer than if we shared all the good news details at one time.

There’s another risk to oversharing, as well: By providing more than what their question is asking, you may also be giving away information for which they didn’t even think ask. The danger here is probably obvious for a crisis or sensitive situation. But why would this be a bad thing if you’re sharing good news? By sharing more than you’ve been asked (and more than you planned to share), you are robbing yourself of future news to share with your audiences and cutting short the potential longevity of your story.

The next time you are preparing for an all-hands forum with employees, a media interview, or a town hall meeting with community members, remember to really listen to the questions that are being asked, answer ONLY the question that is asked, and then stop talking. What you don’t say can be as important as what you do say.

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