What Are You Speaking For?

In follow-up to last month’s blog on Listening For, this post is focused on a practice area called Speaking For.

Beautiful in its simplicity, you only need answer the question: What are you Speaking For?                                          

The answer, however, is typically more complex. Stating your business objective only scratches the surface. We all have certain deliverables to achieve, and of course, it helps everyone involved when we can articulate our desired end game.

Speaking For, though, is intended to go beyond the what and into the how and the why of our communications.

Developing a keen awareness of your deeper intentions is pivotal. It can mean the difference between collaborative, high impact dialogue and the all-too-common, unconscious default of “me speak” (what message do I want to convey, what are my objectives, what does this mean for me, about me, to me?).

One of the executives I mentioned in my Listening For blog post provides a good example of this.

He was a newly promoted, C-Suite executive whose scope and surface motive was to grow the business through product and technology innovation. His focus was on game-changing opportunities. What colleagues noticed, however, was his underlying motive: Be the “smartest guy in the room.”

That moniker had already been somewhat jokingly bestowed upon him in the years preceding our engagement. Bosses and colleagues alike constantly recognized him for his intellect. His grasp of the complex and his ability to see a situation from just about every angle and to decipher the facts into actionable ways forward was simply exceptional.

This led to a promotion into the highest level, most challenging role of his career and that context triggered something within him. He became attached to showcasing his brain power; it seemed to provide some sense of security that he did, indeed, belong on the leadership team. Further cultivating this persona held a powerful allure.

And so he began to demonstrate his intellect in unproductive, sometimes damaging, ways: overly critiquing his colleagues’ ideas and presentations, publicly pointing out errors in their data or logic, discarding opposing viewpoints, and arrogantly pushing his own plans without listening to others.

What was he Speaking For?

He was speaking to be right (which made others wrong), to be more strategic (which made others appear merely tactical), and to be quicker than everyone else (which sometimes left people looking incompetent and feeling embarrassed).

It didn’t take long for his colleagues to begin behaving in predictable ways – they retreated, remained silent, or excluded him.

You may be thinking, “What a so-and-so!” Well, he wasn’t. Talk to him 1:1 and you’d find a wonderful person – funny, warm, ethical, committed to the company and to his colleagues. And yes – whip smart.

Yet, he was speaking for his ego and, unsure that others believed he belonged on this team, he was speaking for personal security.

As we worked together, he saw that his attachment to being recognized as an uber-intellectual was self-limiting. Constantly striving to be brilliant isolated him in ways that actually prevented contribution and undercut the team.

Being the smartest guy in the room wasn’t enough to be a high performing leader.

Our coaching focused on revisiting his personal values and beliefs, refreshing his leadership vision for himself, developing his awareness in the moment of what he was Speaking For, and rebuilding relationships from a place of authenticity and transparency.

Because he was as committed as he was smart, he followed through with every assignment and action plan we created together.

He tackled the vulnerability he felt throughout the process and took some very real risks in front of his boss and peers – many times, articulating the judgment or outcome he was afraid of and how that would make him look to them. Putting his fear flat out on the table took a degree of courage and faith that nobody anticipated from this “genius.”  And this opened the door to repairing relationships and the chance to rebuild healthy partnerships.

Along the way, a transformation occurred.

This leader went from speaking to be right, to be smart, to “wow” with his intellect to instead speaking to connect, to include, to facilitate, to understand and to support. He began Speaking For the success of others, the team and the company, rather than primarily Speaking For himself and his own agenda.

Aware of his defaults and unencumbered by a fear of how others might perceive him, he stepped into a new level of leadership. This freed him up to get back to the business of driving the company forward.

Interested in applying this concept to your performance?

Reflect on your interactions over the last week and isolate a few of the discussions you participated in – whether group meetings or 1:1 conversations. As you identify the viewpoints you shared, look for the catalyst behind your comment. What did you hope to achieve and why? Was that transparent to everyone? Was your underlying motive in synch with your values … with who you intend to be?

If not, you might want to peel the onion a bit to discover what’s really driving you and whether that motive is serving you.

On some level, everyone has an agenda. You needn’t feel guilty about that.

Being able to identify yours (and share it openly) is fundamental to leadership because it fosters trust and partnership.

The practice of Speaking For forces this kind of awareness and transparency and often yields an accountability check on motives and methods – primarily your own, but it can invite others to be equally candid. And that can change everything.


Below are some common Speaking For traps. If you find yourself in one and need support getting out, give me a call. I’m happy to help.

  • Speaking for control, to gain or preserve ownership and influence
  • Speaking for safety, security
  • Speaking for the spotlight
  • Speaking for camouflage – to hide or to distract others from noticing something
  • Speaking for survival of the situation (sometimes equates to silencing your voice)
  • Speaking for manipulation, avoidance or delay (may include withholding information or perspective)
  • Speaking for the sake of arguing with someone
  • Speaking for ego and arrogance
  • Speaking for “I win / you lose”
  • Speaking for your own greatness, rather than speaking to uncover the best in others / the group
  • Speaking to be right or righteous
  • Speaking to minimize, exclude or ignore another
  • Speaking from fear, instead of truth



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