How to Speak More Strategically

It had been three weeks since my throat started to feel sore, and it wasn’t getting better. The pain was most acute when I spoke. So I decided to spend a few days speaking as little as possible. Every time I had the urge to say something, I paused for a moment to question whether it was worth irritating my throat.

This made me acutely aware of when and how I use my voice. Which led me to a surprising discovery: I spend considerable energy working against my own best interests. And if my experience listening to others is any indication, so do you.

In my observations, we speak for three main reasons:

  1. To help ourselves
  2. To help others
  3. To connect with each other

That’s not surprising. All three of those objectives are legitimate and worthwhile.

What is surprising though is how frequently we fool ourselves into thinking were achieving those objectives when, in reality, we’re thwarting them. The more I listened, the more I noticed how we undermine our own interests.

Frequently, I had the urge to gossip about someone else. I realized that I did this to help myself (I will feel better if I think I’m better than that person) and to connect with the other gossipers. But clearly that would distance me from the people about whom I was gossiping. In fact, it would probably even distance me from my fellow gossipers too; who could trust someone who talked behind other people’s back? My attempt to strengthen relationships was, instead, hurting them.

I also had the urge to share information when I thought it would be helpful to someone. That’s a productive reason to speak. But several times I had the urge to say something simply to show that I knew the answer. Or to get attention. Or to increase my power in the group. It became clear to me that my urge to speak in those moments came from my desire to feel special. I wanted people to like me and to think highly of me. But who likes the guy trying to show off?

Sometimes I wanted to help myself by getting the answer to a question, or making sure I was counted in a decision. That’s useful. But other times, I just wanted to make sure my voice was heard over the din of the other voices. I caught myself wanting to speak over someone in a meeting. Or arguing a point to get others to agree with me so I’d feel more confident in my own opinion (which I’m hearing a lot this political season). Is that really helping someone else?

In fact, I was amazed at how often I wanted to speak simply to assure myself that I was here. I had a role. I was noticed.

As I sat silently, trying to preserve my voice, I had the opportunity to notice how and when other people spoke as well. And I noticed all the same tendencies.

If I were to reduce our counter-productive speaking to a single motivation, it would be this: We often speak to make ourselves feel better in the short-term.

But life and relationships are long-term. And when we gossip, raise our voices, speak behind other people’s backs, offer unsolicited opinions, or make jokes at other people’s expense we’re isolating ourselves over time.

There was some good news in my experience of talking less: I listened more. And listening, it turned out, was a much more productive way to achieve my speaking objectives than speaking.

When I listened, I helped myself, helped others and built relationships at least as effectively as I did speaking and with much less collateral damage.

I’m obviously not suggesting we stop speaking; we can’t achieve our three objectives unless we do. We need ask for things. We need to share information. And there are a number of ways — like offering compliments and rephrasing what we’re hearing — we can build relationships through speech.

I am, however, suggesting that we think ahead — long term — when we’re about to say something in the moment. And that, before speaking, we ask ourselves one simple question: Is what I’m about to say going to detract from one of the three reasons I speak? If the answer is yes, consider saving your voice.

My throat is better now and I can speak as much as I want. Which left me feeling a little nervous; now that I know how easy it is to be self-defeating, will I keep myself on the productive side of the speaking equation?

Thankfully, the sore throat left me with a gift: the memory of a sore throat.

These past few days, when I get the urge to talk, I find myself doing a little calculation in my head: If I only have so much speaking I can do in a day, is this thing I’m about to say a worthwhile use of my voice?

What’s amazing is that most of the time I immediately know.


  1. Jeff Whittle says:

    Isn’t it funny the perspective you gain when you DON’T talk? Peter, I really liked your observation that so much talk comes from an internal desire to show other people what you know. Your comments reconnected me with Steven Covey’s most compelling habit…seek first to understand, then to be understood.

    By the way, just finished 18 Minutes…really enjoyed it.

  2. Venugopaalan says:

    Hi Peter,

    Good article , these will reflect the maturity levels as we grow wiser
    as the old saying goes ” Silence is always gold”
    One more thought
    People activities are mainly influenced by three factors below
    1.Love sharing/seeking
    2.Knowledge sharing/seeking
    3.Earning/ spending


  3. Ratna says:

    And GOD has given us two ears to listen more and one mouth to speak less ;)

  4. Zellie says:

    Really like your writing.

    Here is a poem that relates to this topic:

    Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
    Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury,pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    and where there is sadness, joy.

    O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
    to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood as to understand;
    to be loved as to love.
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

    Also, Elisabeth Haich wrote a great book called, “Initiation”, and in it it lists the several levels of obtaining wisdom…one is: when to speak and when not to speak….that both are 2 sides of the same coin. Sometimes it is wrong to speak at certain times/events/etc., and sometimes it is wrong not to speak at certain times/events/etc., and knowing the difference is the key…one has to practice….sounds like you have learned from this self experienced test.

  5. Raja says:

    Excellent articulation…Probably a most compelling case i have come across on why do we need to be listening more.

  6. Mahtab SYED says:

    Hello Peter,
    Very good article. It has all the wisdom which dawns on us when think silently. ( when we dont speak for some time :-) ) Consider these
    => I have heard illiterate elders in Indian villages saying this, “If one speaks too much the wisdom wanes away.”
    =>I have seen some Indian elders practice “Maun Vrat”. This means they keep silent for a decided period. It can range from 1 day to longer, even 40 days. During this period they abstain completely from speaking. And this is one way of practicing self control, gaining wisdom, and eventally getting one step closer towards enlightenement.
    Thanks for your article. Keep writing !
    Mahtab SYED

  7. Prerna Motwani says:

    Hey peter,

    I have a quote to share.

    ” Only speak if you can speak upon your silence”
    Which means speak only when your words are better than your silence.



  8. karen says:

    How true! Just happened to me today. A peer was under pressure and angry that our leader didn’t give what she wanted. She basically argued with him. I started to speak up to warn her of her conduct but someone else beat me to it. It was not well received so I’m glad I listened. What a debate and 15 min of my lire id never get back!

    1. Mao Malambo says:

      Hi Peter,
      What better way to put it? You are so accurate most people practice distractive talking in meetings with the hope of being favourites in the organisation. How sad when they speak themselves out of favour due to lack of listening abilities. God help us.


  9. Maria says:

    How funny that I should find this article today – I have been battling a sore throat for almost a week now, and have even lost my voice complteley a couple of days ago.
    Silence IS golden most often than not.
    I am a very talkative person (which might even be the reason why I have no voice right now hehe) and I often have to consciously remind myself that it is important to listen! Active listening has not always been my forte, but I am working on it. And I strongly believe that a sure way into someone’s heart (or simply good books) is through showing genuine interest in them and listening to what they have to say.

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