The world is filled with different personalities. These personalities come from diverse biologies and socialization’s that are underpinnings to everyone’s existence. In the end we are all unique and have different strengths and weaknesses. People with differing strengths and weaknesses have a tendency to fall into careers that complement their personality traits. Many organizations need different specialities for their operations to exist. Think of an engineer, what do you think their personality is like? Now think of a salesperson, is it the same? Most people would agree that the born engineer has different interests and personality quirks than the marketing and sales guy. The person who is the high level manager is different than the custodial worker. In the end you wind up with organizations that have extremely diverse personality types that must work together for the organizational mission to be accomplished. Welcome to the modern workplace!
There are uncounted elements that go into all of the different types of personalities within the organization. There is one specific personality element that cuts across all types to differing degrees. It’s something that is both innate and can be learned. It’s an element that’s hard to turn on and it’s hard to turn off. It can be an asset and it can be a liability. I’m talking about, well, talking.
Talking is unique in that it cuts across most of the different personality types within the organization. I know accountants who talk too much and sales people who don’t talk nearly as much as you would expect them to based upon the traditional prejudice of the chatty salesperson. Talking is fundamentally communication. Communication is the exchange of information or data. Data transference in any form can suffer from too much or too little and there’s a temporal component. For success, information needs to be transferred in just the right amount at just the right time. Moving away from talking for just a second I can use computer data as an example. If you’re on amazon.com shopping for dog food and Amazon knows approximately a year ago you bought a flea and tick collar, a little ad may pop up saying it’s time to order again. The ad appeared because you have communicated to Amazon a couple of things. The first thing you communicated is you still have a dog or you wouldn’t be buying more dog food. The second thing you communicated is that you are now in the mind frame for spending money on your dog. Amazon remembered the exchange from a year ago, and brought up the subject of the need for a flea and tick collar in the form of an ad. It was the right place, right time, and the right amount of information communicated. Amazon will probably make some more profit this year and your dog won’t annoy the crap out of you by scratching for hours on end.
So if the Amazon Exchange is communication done right, what is communication done wrong? I live in the country and get about 500 kilobytes data service to my house. That’s half a megabyte. Consequently The limited data return I get from some sites means that services like Netflix and YouTube are constantly crashing or stopping. Some websites won’t load at all. Too little communication means that these organizations I’m trying to connect with can’t engage with me.
As I said, sometimes I go to websites and they don’t come up at all. This can happen even when I’m on a blisteringly fast connection at work. I’ll find out later that it was because the website was under attack by a third party. The attacks are usually DDOS or denial-of-service. What this means is that bad guys are throwing so much data at the website in question that it can’t respond to the legitimate requests for connecting like the one I was sending. Too much communication in this case caused a communication breakdown.
Okay, enough explanatory theory, let’s get back to reality. Human beings in the workplace generally don’t communicate in ones and zeros. We talk. If you’re like me you talk and talk and talk. Talking can be an asset and a liability. One of the major benefits of talking is that it’s easier to make connections. Connections are important no matter what type of position you hold.
The Benefits of Talking
Talking, chattering, and sharing, there are some benefits to it. We do it as a part of our ritual of human interactions. It’s our attempt to see things that we may have in common. “So where are you from?” you always hear at a social gathering or possibly “what do you do(as in for a living)?”. Those accepted questions may lead to minor connections that can help drive the pleasant and expected conversation forward at the local chamber networking event. One thing that can happen is when you have a chatty person the volume of information shared goes up logarithmically. Sometimes they overshare. At the networking event you’ll hear about the job, the challenging co-worker, the organizational undulations. If it’s a social gathering you’ll hear about the crazy teacher that the parent has to deal with. You may learn about their mortgage issue, the flu that ran through the household and how the family dealt with it. For some this is TMI. For others, especially those who have run into the same challenges, then the conversation, while potentially a bit on the uncomfortable side could be valuable.
Another benefit of talking too much is that the person who is talking too much is not a mystery. It’s hard to have an ulterior motive if you regurgitate everything that flies through your head. Generally coworkers and acquaintances pick this up right away. People who talk too much are considered genuine and real. There isn’t any false veneer. The chatty person can go from being considered annoying to someone genuinely liked in a group quite quickly, this is especially true if they are reliable and follow up. It’s why the term ‘gift to gab’ exists. Using the word ‘gift’ in that particular colloquialism connotes something good.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are significant benefits of keeping mouth shut. I think the biggest one is honing your ability to listen more to what’s going on around you. For many people, especially the non-talkers you have to be attuned to take in what they are saying through body language. In many cases what they communicate is incredibly subtle. I’ve recently discussed the idea of personality types in the workforce. One of them was the poker player, they tend not to show any emotion at all and typically they are not chatty individuals. The poker player enjoys the benefits of keeping everybody around them guessing.
Letting people create their own reality is another major benefit to a more stoic personality. It’s human nature to fill in the gaps. A great example is a chatty person who likes to discuss their extreme political views. They will go on and on about the vial policy du-jour coming from the other side of the aisle. As the chatty person talks to a quiet person, and the quiet person just smiles and nods their head. The chatty ideologue will just assume that the quiet person is in complete agreement. In my experience that is usually not the case. Everybody’s political tendencies generally come from their own unique life experience. If the quiet person needs to interact with the Politico with any frequency, things will go more smoothly if chatty person thinks the quiet person is on board with the dogma. It doesn’t even have to be an incendiary topic like politics. The reality is that in the absence of information it is human nature to fill in the gaps. If we are dealing with a quiet person who doesn’t show that they are against anything then the natural tendency is to assume they are aligned with our reality. This will always empower the quiet person.
If the quiet individual is savvy they will learn to help this perception generation along. If you add input in a careful way you control it. It’s more than just nodding your head and smiling. If you say nothing but dress like the people who are influencers and decision-makers, they have a tendency to see you as one of their crowd. In a world where decision makers have such limited time interacting with those whom they are making big decisions about, being quiet and sending subtle signs through personal appearance and through attendance in the right places and at the right times can be tremendously powerful. If you open your mouth too much they may realize you’re not like them and all of that perception building will go out the door.
In a perfect world, we’d all do this, we’d all just not talk, or talk as the situation we found ourselves in called for. It would be great if it was just a conscious decision. Unfortunately, for most, it’s not conscious. There is a psychology and a biology to the amount of time that we actually spend speaking. I think of this psychology and biology mix as our hardwiring. Naturally there are challenges of talking / not talking depending on how you are wired. It’s incredibly difficult to speak out Ad nauseam about the benefits of your offering when you’re doing a presentations for your job, but you’re not wired to be a mega extrovert. Conversely when you’re in a meeting with several important people and someone makes a comment that you would like to rebut, it’s hard for the extrovert to silence themselves long enough to truly gauge how the rest of the room reacts.
So what do you do? Well the good news is learning the appropriate way to talk is possible. Unfortunately if the type of talking you want to do is against your nature, learning how to control your personal tendencies is very hard to do. You have to maintain awareness of how your communicating, you have to learn some tricks to help you talk in the way you want to and you have to practice. It’s not a perfect game, it is a skill developed over time.
One of the crutches of the person who don’t talk too much but finds themselves in a situation where they have to engage is only targeting safe subjects: It could be weather or high level conversations about the organizational topics of the day. It could even be politics assuming a homogeneous political environment. If you have a hard time believing that politics could be a safe subject, imagine the example of the type of conversations small business people from the south would have. You will never find someone who supports a left-leaning candidate in that type of group. On the opposite end of the spectrum if you’re at a union gathering the odds of finding someone who wants to talk about supporting pro-business right leaning republicans are slim to none. That’s good for getting some noise out of the generally quiet person, but it doesn’t help build connections. It just reinforces the quiet individual’s credentials to be a member of that particular tribe. The quiet person still has to figure out how to connect to the people around them more deeply than “I love the things you love” or “I hate the things you hate”. To do that the proper amount of talking has to be determined.
The proper amount of talking is an art form
Because of the very nature of conversations ebbing and flowing and jumping from subject to subject in different environments it’s impossible to have a hard science around what is the appropriate amount to talk in any specific situation. So you have to figure out what your goals are. For the person who naturally talks a lot the goal should be: Share enough to connect, don’t share enough to put your ‘junk’ on display and create the awkward barrier with people. For the person who shares too little, again the goal is to share enough to connect, but not so little that the person being spoken to thinks you either don’t have a personality or are holding back and hiding the real person. In both cases the person talking needs to be seen as a connectable human being and in some form of alignment with the person they are speaking with.
What are best practices?
There are some tricks to this no matter what side of the spectrum you are on when it comes to talking.
One of the tricks is to never ever gossip. This is especially hard for the talker as they feel the need to fill the quiet with words and gossip is something that people will readily listen too. It took me years to figure that one out. The problem with gossip is even if you are 120% sure you are right about something, you still could be wrong. You may be right about parts of the specific thing but the way that thing is perceived could be incorrect. Some things can even be confidential. It’s best to avoid anything even remotely close to gossip. He said, she said, is a disaster waiting to happen. A good rule of thumb on any type of Gossip is: Never ever discuss an opinion on a position or an employee if you can’t tell the manager or person directly.
Never share secrets, but share personal connections. If someone tells you something in confidence, it should stay in confidence. This is aligns to gossip but it could be related to machinations within your organization. For example you may know that a buyout may absolutely be happening, but the way it’s structured could be different than you envision . The person whom you are sharing information with will certainly have different priorities than you do even if they are your direct counterpart. A good workaround here is to talk about the likelihood of a buyout being high and the options for everyone who will be affected by it.
Don’t trust too easily or too quickly even if that’s your nature. Unfortunately trust in someone you don’t know, don’t really know, will burn you more often than not. This is because even if the person you’re speaking with seems tremendously trustworthy, everybody ultimately has to do what is in their own best interest.
Talking is a challenge
Sharing the right amount in the right way is a challenge. It wouldn’t be that much of a issue if we all didn’t have to work together in an environment where if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time everything you have worked for your entire life can be taken away from you because somebody decided that your chatty or quiet personality “wasn’t a good fit for the organization”. Ultimately this means that knowing how much to share, and when to do it is as critical a skill for your job security as understanding the concept of voltage and resistance is to staying employed as an electrical engineer.
If you don’t like this article, or maybe you do like it, please feel free to to leave a comment and share. Now that I think about it, I hope some of you will even reach out with anything specific you liked or disliked about it. I think i’d be fun to talk about it, don’t you?