It’s not easy being a softly spoken leader. But in some ways, I’d say it’s better.
I began my career in a very quiet manner, but over the years I grew in confidence, made mistakes, accomplished some good things and now I feel like my opinion should be heard.
Being soft spoken is part of who you are. You can’t just turn your personality off and become a different person. So, let’s take a look and see if we can reframe the challenge of the softly spoken leader.
The Challenges of the Softly Spoken Leader
Softly spoken leaders have it tough.
When many people think of leadership, they often still think of the ambitious, strong, forceful person smashing down barriers and screaming orders.
If someone is soft spoken, or doesn’t stomp on other people’s throats to get to the top, sometimes people don’t consider them to be “leadership material”.
Softly spoken leaders are talked over in meetings, ignored and can find it hard to get their point across. By comparison, their loud, forceful counterparts may be perceived as more capable and driven.
However, often the loudest people in the room are full of hot air, or just speaking for the sake of it. And if you look closely, the quiet achievers might just be your best leaders.
Is This a Male-Female Thing?
Not necessarily. Although gender does have an influence.
In my experience, males are stereotypically louder, may appear more confident and when they tell people to do things, they are seen as “leadership material”.
On the contrary, when women tell people to do things, they may instead be called “bossy” or “dominating”.
According to recent Grant Thornton research, women still only occupy around 24% of senior roles globally.
However, being male or female is not the only factor. I’ve worked with many softly spoken leaders, both male and female. Some of my coaching clients are also thoughtful leaders who struggle to be heard amongst the workplace noise, both male and female.
Advantages of the Soft Spoken Leader
Back in my consulting days, I attended an executive meeting at a large company. There were a lot of opinions put forward by many of the senior leaders in the room, but one person sat silent.
Then, after a period of watching and listening, he spoke. And when he spoke, boy, did everyone listen. They stopped talking. They heard what he had to say and it changed the course of the conversation as he influenced the other opinions in the room.
You might think he was the most senior. But no, he was equal in rank to the others in the room.
He was soft spoken, and when he spoke, people listened. This little story demonstrates some of the power of the soft spoken leader.
Now I’ll break it down in a little more detail and look at some of the advantages of the soft spoken leader.
Softly Spoken Leaders Can Make a Bigger Impact
Jeff is going on and on in the meeting, giving all his ideas while everyone waits for him to stop talking. The only thing is, he generally doesn’t stop, and everyone knows it.
After a while, it’s all just white noise and people are rolling their eyes.
Then Tracy starts talking. She doesn’t speak all the time, so people haven’t learned to tune her out. When she speaks, they listen to see what she has to say.
I’ve found that soft spoken leaders are usually more selective with their input. Instead of spraying the room with words to make their point, they choose them carefully and deliberately.
When you speak selectively and intentionally, you focus your message. You use a small number of words to get your point across. This is often easier to absorb and understand than a lot of waffling and unnecessary words.
So when a soft spoken leader speaks, people tend to listen.
Softly Spoken Leaders Listen More
Soft spoken people don’t speak often. Instead, they tend to wait and listen to what’s going on around them. When you do this, you will gain valuable insights into the discussion.
This means that when you do speak, you’ve processed more of the information and you can make a better point, which takes the previous conversations into account.
When you listen, you can summarise and reflect back the previous conversations. You haven’t missed anything, because you’ve been listening.
When you listen, you also show respect for the people who are talking to. This will help you to build credibility and form relationships which may prove beneficial in the future.
If your only focus is on talking, you aren’t really listening – and you’ll miss important information.
How to Succeed as a Soft Spoken Leader
Ok, there are some advantages to being a softly spoken leader, but it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. There are some things I recommend that will help you succeed if you find yourself on the softer side of the speaking spectrum.
Here are my top 3 tips to succeed as a softly spoken leader.
1. Never Force Yourself to Say Something, if You Have Nothing to Say
Early in my leadership career, I always felt like I needed to say something. If I was in a meeting, I needed to pipe up with my opinion to show I was contributing.
If you’re just speaking to show that you’re involved in the conversation and you’re not adding any value, then your reputation will take a hit.
Then, people might think you’re softly spoken because you have nothing useful to say.
Obviously if you never speak at all, this could also be a problem for your reputation. Otherwise, being selective with your speaking will help you to make an impact when you do open your mouth.
Learn More: 6 Great Ways to Build Your Leadership Brand.
2. Plan Your Communication to Suit Your Strengths
If you are a softly spoken leader, large meetings probably aren’t your best communication forum. By contrast, you might be better using a more intimate setting like an individual meeting.
If you have some important information to share or need to influence a decision, consider using a smaller forum, rather than trying to speak over the louder people in the room. A quiet coffee meeting can be the perfect setting for building relationships or influencing stakeholders.
Personally, I’ve found that smaller, one on one discussions provide the opportunity to go deeper into conversation and can build credibility and rapport in a more powerful way.
3. Do Great Work
Sounds obvious? I know, but it’s true.
Doing great work gives you credibility. Credibility starts to give you respect. Then, people are more likely to listen.
Even if people say you are “too quiet”, or “not ambitious enough”, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Nobody fires someone who does great work. Doing great work provides you with more time to build your confidence.
Once you’re regarded as a high performer, people tend to feel more compelled to listen. You will stand up and shout “Hey, I’ve got something to say!”.
OK, maybe not literally, but you get the idea.
Learn More: Important Ways That Leaders Can Earn Respect at Work.
4. Reframe Your Thinking: Softly Spoken = Selective
The world has enough dominant, loud and aggressive leaders. Let’s try something different.
Telling yourself that you are softly spoken may be a limiting belief.
This can be limiting because you are subconsciously thinking that you should fit the “normal” leadership stereotypes: Strong, Bold, Opinionated, Forceful, Confident.
You might not feel like any of those leadership words apply to you.
So let’s reframe the situation. If you’re softly spoken, you probably speak quietly, or don’t speak often. This just means you are more selective about when you do speak.
Being selective is a good thing. You don’t just pollute the air with words. You add value to the conversation.