Dan Lyons is a New York Times bestselling author who has spent much of his career covering technology for Forbes and Newsweek. He’s also “an inveterate overtalker, which has cost me dearly,” he writes in STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World. “The problem is not only that I talk too much; it’s that I have never been able to resist blurting out inappropriate things, and I couldn’t keep my opinions to myself. Often I knew even as the words flew out of my mouth that I would regret them and suffer for saying them. But I said them anyway.”
Writing the book, he told Convene, “began for me as, ‘Oh, I’m going to stop wrecking my life by saying stupid things.’ Then it was, ‘Oh, wow. If I talk less, I can be better at negotiating.’ The real breakthrough was: ‘Oh, if I sit back and I create space for others and I invite them to talk and I listen, then, I’m making their lives better. This is like a gift.’ That itself is kind of a superpower — to be someone who goes through life making the lives of the people around them better in little ways, and honestly getting better information.”
The problem is that no one teaches us how to have difficult conversations, Lyons said. “The way to have them really is to listen. It always requires intention. I do think you can get better at it with practice. It’s not like riding a bike — if you haven’t ridden a bike for 10 years, you can get on a bike and ride it. It’s more like, to me, going to the gym and lifting weights. If you stop doing it, you get weaker and weaker.”
Lyons said he mentally prepares for conversations by reminding himself to listen. “It’s hard, listening, and that active listening is not the same as hearing — really closely paying attention and sustaining that,” he said, “it’s a lot of work.”
Convene asked Lyons how some of his listening insights could make for better event experiences. Here are two of his suggestions.
IMPROVED NETWORKING. Loud networking receptions where you have to shout to be heard, Lyons said, make meaningful connections almost impossible. In more quiet environments, Lyons thinks saying four words — borrowed from “Bill Marriott, who built the Marriott chain”— is a simple way to foster better conversations. Marriott is well-known for his four favorite and most powerful words: “What do you think?” Asking that question when having a conversation about a particular topic demonstrates that you are interested in the other person, he said, “and then watch what happens — people come alive, and they become very interesting.”
HELPING WOMEN SPEAK UP. “Men are the champions of overtalking — and talking over,” Lyons writes in STFU. “We bulldoze. We hog the floor. We mansplain, manterrupt, and deliver manalogues.” Lyons shares in the book how he once saw his wife get “bullied by a guy during the Q&A period after she presented a conference paper. He talked over her, interrupted her, wouldn’t let her speak, and practically shouted at her. Afterward, when I told her how outraged I was, she said, ‘Don’t you know? This happens to women all the time.’”
Lyon’s wife’s experience provides one explanation for why, according to a number of studies, women ask fewer questions than men during the Q&A part of sessions. He surmised that women are “so used to having this experience where if they speak up, they’re going to be interrupted or talked over, and after a while, maybe you just give up, or you become gun-shy,” he said. One way to remedy this, Lyons suggested, is for speakers to intentionally “solicit input from the women in the meeting who maybe are reluctant to speak up.”
He added: “Women on the Supreme Court get interrupted more than men. Even very powerful women are interrupted by the people who are petitioning them, by the lawyers who are petitioning the Supreme Court. Can you imagine? You interrupt the judge you’re trying to persuade. I think it’s all about oppression — a way of silencing women. There’s one theory that says women need to just speak up and interrupt more and assert themselves more. I feel like the onus is also on men to shut up. It’s the whole point of my book: to shut up and create space, and to be intentional about it.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
This article and those listed below are part of Convene’s January/February 2024 issue cover and CMP Series story package.