30 April 2016 11:42:59 IST

Speech is silver, silence is golden

A fine balance between active communication and discreet silence is essential

At an e-commerce seminar I attended recently, I caught up with some fellow participants during the coffee break. As is customary, business cards were exchanged and one particular card that I received caught my attention. The small rectangular card had a list of eight different methods by which you could reach this up-and-coming businessman. In it, he could fit in (apart from his name and company) his email address, mobile number, LinkedIn profile URL, his personal website, Facebook page URL, YouTube channel, Twitter handle and Flickr profile!

This individual makes it very convenient for his existing, as well as potential, customers to reach him and is able to effectively communicate his consultancy services to a global audience. He has a small team which is responsible for managing the various channels of communication so that the right message reaches the targeted audience.

Be wary of misleading intel

This got me thinking about the proliferation of channels of communication in the modern world. The mightiest rulers of yesteryear would envy the communication tools of the modern day aam aadmi . As they say life is a mixed blessing. With increasing availability of easy communication channels, there is an ever-increasing possibility of wrong or misleading communication, with potentially serious consequences. To convey or receive the right message, one has to remain vigilant and alert in this hyper-connected world.

Our society places a huge premium on communication, particularly on verbal communication, and this starts almost from childhood. Parents get anxious and consult doctors if they notice any slight delay in their child beginning to talk. Schools and colleges acknowledge and appreciate articulate students.

One of the entry criteria for business schools (B-school) is through a group discussion, which assesses the communication skills of the applicant. The B-school curriculum itself revolves around the submission and presentation of case studies, wherein students with effective communication skills have a clear edge over those who do not.

Discretion with a tight lip

While strong communication is indeed a great differentiator and provides a significant advantage in many facets of our lives, one has to bear in mind that it is also wise to be discreet and tight-lipped if circumstances warrant it. People who possess tact and discretion are valued everywhere. The world of business, diplomacy and politics needs people who can keep information to themselves and honour the highest confidence.

Speaking is good, of course, but at times saying nothing is better. For instance, during the quiet period of publicly listed companies, it is better to be taciturn. The quiet period refers to weeks before close of the business quarter when company officials are forbidden to communicate with analysts, media or private investors.

There are enough case studies on how companies are ruined following prison time or debilitating penalties for violating insider trading rules. I had an opportunity to listen to a former CFO of a large, multi-billion-dollar telecom company on the process he followed prior to the results announcement. He mentioned that, apart from his CEO and lead director, only three other trusted people in the finance department were involved in the consolidation process. They took these extraordinary measures to ensure there was no leakage of information. As they say, speech is silver but silence is golden.

The significance of halwa

Talking of confidentiality and discretion, there is an interesting tradition pertaining to India’s Union Budget making process and the related halwa ceremony — one that has existed for a long time. As part of the ritual, halwa is prepared in a big kadhai (vessel) and served to the staff of the Ministry.

The significance of the sweet dish is that, after it is served, a large number of officials and support staff, who are directly associated with the Budget making and printing process, are required to stay in the Ministry and remain cut off from their families till the presentation of the Budget by the Minister. They are not even allowed to contact their near and dear ones through phone or any other form of communication, such as e-mail. Insulating the entire team ensures that no information is leaked prior to announcement of the Budget.

Keeping mum in HR

In human resources, one of the most sensitive departments in an organisation, is the compensation and benefits domain which handles payroll and other related functions. People in charge of this need to display professionalism and handle sensitive salary information with great care.

Employees working in the marketing function would have access to various marketing, pricing strategy or staff working in R&D would have advance information about the future pipeline of products. Given the huge stakes involved, many corporates have stringent policies on confidential information, which goes beyond the terms of employment. An employee is expected to maintain complete secrecy even after he leaves the organisation and sometimes forever.

I remember reading about a major security breach in the United Kingdom, when the identity of the Head of MI6 (Military Intelligence) was exposed as his wife published photographs and family details on Facebook. The head of MI6 is responsible for all of the UK’s espionage operations abroad, but his wife’s entries in the social networking site exposed potentially compromising details about where he lived, worked and holidayed with his friends.

Speech or silence?

Eloquence is appreciated but silence is valued. Great talkers can be discreet and not reveal information when the need arises. The skill of exercising caution based on situations is the crux of the issue. Furthermore, there is a fine line between holding back information to be discreet and withholding information to demonstrate power.

For example, a project leader of a consulting company was responsible for holding back information she had, just to prove her power. The project was delayed as the team had to re-invent the wheel in terms of evolving processes. The project leader lost her credibility and eventually her job. One does not have to be a loose cannon, but at the same time, being tight-lipped as a policy can frustrate people and affect important work.

Silence is self-control

Silence is akin to what is called in medicine as the ‘tincture of time’. In some cases, an illness is merely watched without administration of medication. In due course, the person recovers and all is well. Similarly, it is better not to react or verbalise anything in some situations. Where words are bound to complicate or confuse, silence can work wonders.

Silence is a good substitute for self-control. Ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism Lao Tzu said, “Silence is a source of great strength. Being silent can prevent many a clash in communication or a leak in information”.

A fine balance between active communication and discreet silence is essential in both professional and personal lives. In other words, know when to talk and when not to.