The Value of Knowing When to Shut Up

For golf caddies to keep their jobs they either need be skilled at the technical stuff (reading greens, giving advice, etc.) or good at recognizing what kind of small talk is wanted during a round, i.e. knowing when to talk and when to shut up.

hinske and hammel

As a lifelong Cubs’ fan, caddying for Eric Hinske and Jason Hammel during the 2016 World Series run was a highlight of my caddying career.

I like to think I have collected sufficient evidence to prove this claim during the last 11 summers I have spent as a golf caddie at some of the best clubs in the country, seeing more caddies fired for bad communication than for bad golf advice. And while I have witnessed plenty of caddies canned for the same shenanigans lampooned in Harold Ramis’s 1980 classic Caddyshack, arriving to work hungover, still drunk, or stoned are often forgiven if you know how to talk.

I am not good at the technical stuff and there is a long list of disappointed golfers who can attest to that. However, I know how and when to talk to members and their guests, often über wealthy and über powerful titans of industry. This ability to assess the communicative potential of these interactions and to act accordingly have led to the development of professional connections and friendships I value greatly. For example, before launching Jay Communication Solutions. I spent 18 holes picking the brain of one of the most successful CEOs in the United States who suggested I go all-in on my idea. Even now I continue to call him up for advice.

In the professional world, knowing when to listen, when to talk, and what to say are invaluable skills not everyone takes the time to develop. As a young professional and/or someone trying to climb the organizational ladder, being able to evaluate what kind of conversation your colleagues and superiors want is even more valuable considering the faster you can understand the power dynamics the less prone you are to put your foot in your mouth.

I know firsthand this can be difficult, especially when people are wrong or rude. When I first started caddying, I was temporarily fired for yelling back at a golfer who screamed “Find that f*cking golf ball, caddie” at me. Apparently, “Find your own f*cking golf ball” was not the most prudent response. Luckily, the member who yelled at me was disliked by most of the membership and club management.

Being able to assess what you can get away with saying and to whom are key, whether that means speaking your mind when someone is wrong or chiming in on a conversation to which you have something to add.

Here are some general rules for communicating with others above you on the power hierarchy (professionally, this means your superiors, but personally, I guess this might help with your in-laws as well):

  1. Listen first, talk second. Observe and evaluate your audience. Collect as much data as possible. Figure out what information they respond to and what approaches they ignore. The more you know about your audience (of one or of many), the more effective your message can be once you ask for a promotion, suggest an operational change, or offer your perspective.
  2. Build rapport before mining for data. It is important to build a relationship prior to asking questions that require candid answers. If some C-suite executive has no idea who you are, asking her about her approach to leadership might be fruitless. Listening and showing respect while waiting for the opportunity to ask such a question will offer more valuable answers. I cringe when I hear a caddie ask someone like Peyton Manning or Jay Bilas a personal question on the driving range; give the relationship some time to establish itself before even considering asking a question that is not anything but superficial or task-related.
  3. Never get too comfortable. Stay on your toes even if it feels like things are going well. I have caught myself getting too comfortable by the seventh or eighth hole and talking too much, turning members off by offering too much information they don’t care about or asking too many questions. Always be mindful of the power dynamics. The people above you on the hierarchy have the freedom to talk when they want; if you want to get to this place, be cognizant of the flow of conversation. Self-awareness is a revered personality trait.
  4. Exit with confidence, respect, and authenticity. Take the opportunity to end a conversation on your own terms, rather than waiting for someone else end it because it’s getting awkward or time is running out. Being aware of when an interaction is drawing near a close is a capacity not everyone has, but if you can highlight this ability, it shows others that you recognize and respect the value of their time. It is also a good way to accentuate confidence and in showing gratitude, you can convey authenticity.

In closing, the abilities to listen to and communicate with others will strengthen over time, which means by the time you have reached a more powerful position, you will have the experience and be able to leverage your fine-tuned conversation skills in more valuable ways.

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