Being Quiet, Being Heard: How can one remain quiet and lead?


This is the topic of DAWN’s 2nd Asian Australian Leadership Conversations to be held in Sydney on 15th July 2015 at 6pm.

This subject applies to Asians and non-Asians alike, to those who find it challenging to be heard above the more boisterous colleagues.  So how does one lead a team or an organisation when you are naturally quiet?

Direct leadership relationships are easier to navigate because you have the authority that requires your team to listen to you.  When dealing with your peers, superiors or those who don’t report directly to you, it is a little trickier, but not impossible.

Firstly, being quiet is not a disadvantage unless you make it so.  When you are speaking, you can’t be listening.  When you are listening, your brain processes information faster than while you are speaking, which means you can assess much faster and be more perceptive about the discussion at hand.

I am an Asian-born female and at some point in my life, an introvert.  My listening and thinking abilities seemed to be functioning well, yet I spent countless frustrating meetings where I wanted to make a pertinent point, phrasing and rephrasing in my mind how best to say it, waiting for the right time without interrupting someone else …. then the moment is gone and the conversation has moved on.  I didn’t get the opportunity to say it, and to bring it up would mean dragging the conversation back to a few minutes ago.

It is easy for someone else to say to you “Just speak up” or “Speak louder, don’t be shy”, but what they don’t realise is that there are internal hurdles to overcome before speaking up.  The cultural background – like you don’t toot your own horn – or family values that you have been brought up with – like you don’t speak unless you are invited to, will hold you back from being spontaneous in responding or contributing to a conversation.

One day, I decided I had had enough; enough frustrations brought upon myself.  Just like that, I changed, or at least my mindset changed immediately to include certain behavioural characteristics to give myself the opportunity to be heard.  Some of it was trial and error, but I made progress.  Decades later, I bought a book for my teenage daughters who also happened to be introverts, and the last chapter in that book gave a few useful tips on “extroverting yourself”.  The book is called “The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World” by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.

Now with 35 years of international career under my belt, I can reflect on those early days and the journey since then to become an extroverted introvert.  Introverts can become more effective leaders because listening typically is a strength.  I could recognise, empathise and make space for those who also should be heard.  Over the years, my leadership teams comprised of individuals with diverse thoughts and ideas, and it was diversity of background and experiences that have led to how they can contribute differently toward our collective goals.  So celebrate your quietness, and build on it to become an effective leader.

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