Become a Better Communicator by
Keeping Your Mouth Shut

by Kenny Moore


In corporate life we are in serious danger of believing that those who talk the loudest win the day. My 20 years in business have taught me that leaders who can actually keep their mouths shut and ears open have a better chance of being heard, believed and followed.

Transplanting Monastic Practices

When I lived in the monastery as a Catholic priest, we had a spiritual practice called the "Grand Silence." Each evening after dinner and night prayer, we would retire to our cells under a cloak of silence that reigned until after Mass the following morning. It was spiritual time spent reflecting on life, death and one's relationship to the Divine. A chance to grapple with the dynamic tension between human frailty and the personal call to holiness. While religious reading was tolerated, we were encouraged to spend the time creatively doing nothing. The Roman philosopher, Cato, once said: "Never am I more active than when I do nothing." Granted, he wasn't a monk, but he was articulating one of life's golden truths. In sacred silence, we have a chance to hear an alternative voice beyond our self-serving subconscious. There are certain messages that will only be revealed in darkness and uncluttered space. Those who have the fortitude and faith to wait there are often copiously rewarded.

I came to understand how valuable this silence was only after I left the monastery and got married. When my wife and I returned from our honeymoon and began our life of marital bliss, she would, each evening, talk about her day at work, planned projects for the house, the number and names of our expected offspring, as well as an endless array of other wifely concerns. It took about a week before I broke under the barrage of words. "Dear," I remember saying, "In the monastery, we didn't talk after dinner; we had the 'Grand Silence.'" I explained that I wasn't used to ongoing evening conversations. "I need some quiet in the house," I whispered. With concern and respect for her new husband, she lovingly replied: "Honey, you're so damn weird!"

This tension between monastic silence and marital discourse went on for years. It eventually got resolved around the dinner table when my wife and I were sharing an evening repast, surrounded by our two young squabbling sons. Milk was being spilt, food was being thrown and parental patience was being compromised. After the ninth foray into a cacophony of sibling rivalry, my wife threw down her napkin and announced: "That's it. Grand Silence! There's no more talking. You boys leave the table, go upstairs and put your pajamas on and get into bed. I've had enough!" As the boys retreated to their lair, I looked at her with deep affection and said: "Honey, you're so damn weird!"

If my memory serves me well, I think I spent that night sleeping alone on the couch.

Silence as an Executive Competency

It's not just our personal life that benefits from silence. So does our corporate one.

I recently had a chance to work with one of our Operating officers. He asked my help in designing a group meeting with his managers to get their input regarding departmental goals. We worked assiduously in crafting a session largely focused on what the employees had to say, and intentionally kept executive remarks to a minimum. During the half-day program, participants broke into small groups to write down their thoughts about organizational needs, operational gaps and suggestions for productively moving the business forward. The employees spent some time writing and a lot of time speaking. The officer largely listened.

There were a few interesting insights. We came to learn that when executives speak, employees rarely listen or if they do listen they don't believe. But co-workers have great credibility and when they talk, they have a significant impact on their peers. Mostly because they're not seen as paid political envoys, but fellow workers laboring in the daily muck and mire. Even though the executive could have waxed eloquently about customer satisfaction and safety, having employees talk about their experiences on the job proved far more compelling.

After unedited conversations about business challenges and operational needs, one engineer remarked: "This is the first time I understand how our department actually fits into the company's Growth Strategy." Thank God the folks from Corporate Planning weren't in the room; they would have reeled in horror.

In the midst of executive silence, we also got a chance to hear about our newly minted performance appraisal program and forced ranking system. Seems we achieved exceptional results in disheartening our employees and marginalizing the workforce. As one brave director said: "I don't mind raising the performance bar, but I personally resent being badgered and threatened by the system." How surprising: our slavish adherence to "Best Practices" had once again ruptured employee relations and compromised intrinsic motivation.

When employees evaluated the half-day program, their one clear and consistent comment was: "How refreshing to be in a meeting with an officer who actually listens. It makes me hopeful about our future."

Additionally, for the last few years my CEO has been hosting informal dinner meetings with a handful of managers once a month. He wants to hear what's working well in the company and what's not. His main contribution to the conversation is silence, coupled with an intense interest in learning about what's really going on at the workplace. Oddly enough, our top-ranking officer has come to learn that he finds out more about the hopes and concerns of our workers when he doesn't speak. Initially, he had me joining him to make sure he didn't talk too much. Over time, he's become a pro at it. My main responsibility now is to pick up the dinner tab and fret over my diminishing value to the company.

Practice Makes Perfect

While silence comes more easily to monks than to Alpha-males, it is a skill that can be learned and honed. Here are some practical steps to get you started:

  1. The next time you're out driving, turn off the radio. Likewise, resist the temptation to use your cell phone. Besides being illegal, it's dangerous to your life: interior as well as exterior. Drive around in the glow of silence and pay attention to what your eyes notice and your soul surfaces. There's inspiration and beauty abounding.

  2. At an upcoming business social, go around the room and hook up with as many strangers as possible. After a brief introduction, ask them what they do for a living, then shut up and listen. Periodically nod your head in agreement and use your eyes to offer support and encouragement.

    Occasionally say: "That sounds interesting, tell me more." People will be impressed. By evening's end, attendees will leave the gala affair commenting on your leadership potential and exceptional communication skills.

  3. Stop watching TV. George W. Bush has gotten a few things right, and this is one of them. Television deadens our senses, causes undue anxiety about the future and leaves us feeling sullen and morose. In return for this small sacrifice, you'll receive a dividend of extra time to creatively do nothing. Spend it wisely. Perhaps lighting a candle or expanding your spirit of gratitude for life's little blessings.

  4. Sit still for ten minutes each day in silence. No prayer needs to be said; no mantra recited. Simply be present and be quiet.

Mystery in the Marketplace

Mystery is marbled into all of life, and especially that of work. The realm of business is often the place where the drama of life unfolds. The perplexing realities of good, evil, suffering, and injustice are made manifest. The inscrutability of growth, transformation and personal redemption often accompanies our work. As we journey in our jobs, we come to realize that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.

It's said that upon graduation, doctors are informed that half of what they were taught is wrong. The problem is, the medical establishment's not sure exactly which half it is. When you're dealing with a human being, mystery runs rampant. Working with people is not a mechanical relationship. It's a sacred one.

If you consider that corporations are comprised of hundreds and thousands of human beings, it's unlikely we can readily mandate operating principles that will engage and motivate them. Perhaps simply showing up and listening is a worthwhile strategy for business success.

When confronted with mystery, our most practical response is awe: boldfaced and with abject stupefaction. It's no surprise that "mystery" comes from the Greek verb meaning: keep your mouth shut. If we're looking for an executive role model for the competency of managing mystery, we might want to consider Moses standing before the burning bush. In stark imitation, we're well served to remain silent, remove our sandals and recall that we are standing on sacred ground.

I wonder how long it'll take Stephen Covey to add these to his list of "Highly Effective Habits"?

P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at .


The Author

Kenny Moore

Kenny Moore ( is co-author of The CEO and the Monk: One Company's Journey to Profit and Purpose (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the top ten best selling business books on He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 energy company. Reporting to the CEO, he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.

Kenny has more than 20 years experience with managing change, developing leaders and healing the corporate community. He's been profiled by Charles Osgood on CBS Sunday Morning News and interviewed by Tom Peters, The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine regarding his unique leadership style. Kenny is the recipient of Notre Dame University's 2006 Hesburgh Award for his significant contribution to the field of business ethics.

His business practices are based on those of Louie Armstrong who said: "I am here in the service of Happiness." Louis died a rich and beloved man; his voice still sings in the ears (and hearts) of millions.

Prior to his work in corporate America, Kenny spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Several years ago, he had the good fortune of being diagnosed with "incurable" cancer, at its most advanced stages. He underwent a year of experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute and survived. Kenny came away from that experience recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us." Kenny's lifetime goal is to spend more of his time playing his music. Having dealt with both God and death, Kenny now finds himself eminently qualified to work with senior management on corporate change efforts.

Kenny is a watercolor artist, poet and photographer. He is Founding Director of Art for the Anawim, a not-for-profit charity that works with the art community in supporting the needs of terminally ill children and the inner-city poor. His poems have been published in several anthologies; one was selected as a semi-finalist in the North American Open Poetry Contest. Kenny lives in New Jersey and is married to the "fair and beautiful" Cynthia. Together, they are fighting a losing battle of maintaining their mental stability while raising two growing boys.

Kenny has recently expanded his work to include Stand-up Comedy. This is driven largely by the sneaking suspicion that when the Divine returns, He will find a more receptive audience in bars and comedy clubs than in our Houses of Worship. He can be reached at or (973) 956-8210.

(Kenny also has the distinction of having the longest bio we have published. It is a wonderful and inspirational story of a man on a most mindful mission. Thanks Kenny. ed.)

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by Kenny Moore. All rights reserved.

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