Last week, I was strolling the streets of Manhattan, killing time, when I walked by one of those nice stationery stores that sells not only paper, but beautiful cards, planners, and novelty items. I was thinking it was almost time for a 2019 calendar (yes, I still love a paper calendar!) and so I went in to browse.

The first thing I spotted, on a display table that sat front-and-center, was a stack of small black boxes that said “Stop Talking” on the front. I couldn’t imagine what they were. Luckily, one of the boxes was already opened and so I got a look – inside were 50 or so ivory-colored cards that also said “Stop Talking” in black ink.

This is when my head-scratching began. So, for $9.95, I could have 50 of these little cards to hand out to over-talkers? When would I use these and how? Were these for chatty friends who, over coffee, start answering ‘what’s new?’ and then never come up for air? Were these for those meeting participants who talk for the sake of hearing themselves talk? Were these meant to be surreptitiously slipped onto the desks of neighboring cubicle dwellers who talk too much and too loudly?

My imagination ran wild. And then it stopped. I decided these little “Stop Talking” cards were for any and all of the above … and probably more. We live in a world of talkers, and clearly someone invented this novelty item on the theory that there would be plenty of consumers who would find these “calling cards” amusing and/or useful.

What does this say, then, about how we’re doing with two-way communication? Can you imagine a similar offering of 50 “Stop Listening” cards? I can’t. The problem is that the talking side of the communication see-saw is always over-weighted, and the listening side is under-weighted. Anecdotally, I know this to be the case because I often get asked if I can coach people to be more succinct and to listen better, sometimes teams of people. It’s quite common that people talk more than others can bear, and it’s universally challenging among individuals and groups alike.

For those who are nodding in agreement while reading so far, here are 5 quick-tip reminders about listening versus talking that you can use as refreshers for yourself or that you can share with your favorite over-talker(s):

  1. Think about your audience: Is this someone/a group you should be listening to more (boss or client) or talking to more? Is there really anyone you should be talking to more than you should be listening to? Balance your talking with listening.
  2. Train your brain to go into neutral and simply be present and listen. Literally, stop your brain for a minute. Focus. Hear. Process. Listen, stop talking.  
  3. Listen for the purpose of empathizing and relating rather than listening for the purpose of formulating a response. You might not need to formulate a unique response at all, you might just need to reiterate/reinforce/validate what you heard. Slow down. Listen, stop talking.
  4. Listen for the purpose of learning, gaining insight or gathering intelligence. Listening can produce some very valuable material you can use to your advantage later on. If you’re talking, you’re not learning. Listen, stop talking.
  5. Listen intently, actively and sincerely. Be that person. So that when you want to talk and be influential, you will surely be given your due. Listen for real, so you when you need to talk, others will listen.

Those “Stop Talking” cards stopped me dead in my tracks and got me thinking. I’m not sure I’d have the gumption to hand them out, but I considered it. More than that, they prompted me to think about communication as a two-way transaction that breaks down when one way gets more traction and time than the other. The fix is simple, though: stop talking so much, start listening more!

Beth Levine