Conversations in Management: Calvin Coolidge

I have never been hurt by anything I didn’t say.

Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge_2Yes and no.

 Today when we remember Calvin Coolidge—if we remember him at all—it’s for his extreme taciturnity. It was more than being, “a man of few words.” The story is told of a young socialite who when seated by him at a dinner party, said, “Mr. President, I have a bet that I can get more than two words out of you tonight.” To which Mr. Coolidge replied, “You lose,” and didn’t speak again all evening. He was dubbed “Silent Cal,” but there was more to his silence than met the eye.

 At first glance his observation seems sound; particularly in an age where everyone has been conditioned to sound off at will. Just listen to talk radio. Whether the subject is politics, gardening, sports or morals, there is a steady stream of callers ready to share their often questionable wisdom with the world. Closer to home, few of us have escaped the experience of regretting something we said even as the words were leaving our lips. Angry words, silly words, indiscrete observations and betrayed confidences slip between our teeth with abandon. Too late we discover that the snappy rejoinder to the boss’ comment seems less humorous in light of the consequences. Certainly, Silent Cal was right. We should listen more and speak less. And we should listen all the way through before working on our reply. And we should think about the consequences of what we say before we say it.

 But that’s not all. In the rush of daily living we leave a lot unsaid. Too many thank- yous are somehow missed; too many words of encouragement never uttered. And we all know the mistakes and wrong-doing that gets by because nobody had the courage to speak up. Even worse; a vast number of insights, innovations and inspirations are never brought to life because folks never got around to expressing them. Maybe shyness got in the way, or a fear of sounding foolish, or a lingering sense that nobody would pay attention anyway. The result is the same—a lot of potentials are never realized. Saddest of all is when a loved one passes and too late comes the realization of the things that should have been told, that can now never be told.

Calvin Coolidge was never the life of the party, but he wasn’t always Silent Cal either. What’s not widely known is that four months before Coolidge’s election, his 16 year old son, Calvin Jr., died suddenly. Neither Coolidge nor his presidency ever recovered. Always a quiet man, he became a silent man. Perhaps, in the end, he was hurt by the things he didn’t say about his consuming grief.

When to listen? When to speak? What a dilemma. There has to be time for both. Perhaps the answer is to speak less impulsively and to listen more thoughtfully. Maybe if we all do just that, the next time we have something really important to say, we can be sure someone will listen.         —Ebert

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