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Put a sock in it!

Polite—or semipolite—ways to say ‘shut up’

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in Leaders & Managers

Yeah, I know. A CEO has to be a good listener. I’m working on it.

I’m able to listen when someone tells me something of value. I’m even willing to keep quiet when an employee needs to vent or complain or give me a blow-by-blow account of his day.

But there are times when I refuse to waste time listening, like when people tell stupid jokes or can’t stop running their mouths. I just want to yell SHUT UP ALREADY!

Yeah, I know. I can’t do that.

A diplomatic cutoff valve

I’ve found that unless I speak up eventually, people might talk my ear off for 10 minutes, easy. It’s almost like they dare me to interrupt.

I don’t play that game. I’m not going to pretend to listen, then pretend I have a sudden need to rush off. People see through that.

There are more efficient ways to prod someone to make a point without barking, “Make your point.” My favorite technique is to jump in and ask, “What are you concluding from all this?” or “OK, let’s talk action: What are you going to do? And what do you want me to do?” If I still don’t get an answer, I’ll repeat the question until it sinks in.

When I’m more comfortable with the person, I might push a little harder by saying “Cut to the chase” or “Give me the short version.” It’s rude, but it works.

Silencing the dumb joker

My company can be a pretty tense place to work. Lots of folks tell jokes to relax. We’re big on gallows humor.

But some people’s brand of humor borders on the offensive. If I come down too hard on them, I fear coming across as a schoolmarm. But if I let one guy tell an off-color joke, things often degenerate into a free-for-all.

I like to say “Watch it” or “Enough” as a kind of warning. If that doesn’t work, I’ll pull the person aside and say, “I want to make you aware of something. I’m all for fun and games, but there’s a line we can’t cross. I don’t want you to tell jokes other people might find offensive.”

Sending silent signals

You can listen to a bird’s song if you keep still. But if you make any quick moves, the bird may fly away.

Same goes with people. I’ll often knock a speaker off his perch by fidgeting, checking my watch or, more obviously, standing up and starting to head out the door. But I don’t just walk out. I maintain eye contact to be polite. Yet without saying a word, by shifting from a listening posture to show I’m on the go, I convey the need for him to hurry up.

Each month, “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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