You Don’t Have to be the Smartest Person in the Room

by Toddie Brummels

Human Connection

For some of us, it’s easy not to be the “smartest person in the room” (enter snide comment here). For others, it’s more difficult to simply sit and absorb before speaking up; sharing viewpoints and knowledge is a must. Of course there’s nothing wrong with sharing your knowledge, but sometimes we all need to be quiet and learn. In fact, you might be surprised at how much you can learn (and even how much more effectively you can lead) by NOT speaking out sometimes.

One of the most valuable jobs I have ever held was being a server at a restaurant. I truly believe this has made me much stronger in my career, and everyone should do this job, even if just for a day. The keys to being a good server are listening and observing. Understanding the needs of your customer is never easy, and the needs of the person sitting in front of you are always unique. Creating a great experience from beginning to end comes down to the ability to learn and adapt from moment to moment. The art of serving is incredibly difficult and challenging, and it quickly teaches you to be comfortable not being the smartest in the room.

If you’ve never been a server, how do you go about learning to listen and observe? First, be humble. You’ve heard the motto, “The customer is always right.” This doesn’t mean that every customer truly does everything perfect and right, but it does mean it’s your job to make them feel that way. Imagine how your fellow employees would feel if you treated them like everything they said or did had value. Affirmation builds confidence, and confidence fosters new and creative ideas. 

Second, be observant and meet people where they are. As a server, when I would first greet a table, I would observe the details of the people at the table: the tone of their voices, the amount of eye contact, and how engaged or chatty they were. From those quick observations, it was pretty clear which customers wanted me to simply be an order taker, and those who wanted to ask questions and engage in the experience.

So how does this connect to the world of business and meetings? If you walk into a room looking to “serve” great ideas, or to simply observe, what would that mean? It means you let someone else be the smartest in the room (be quiet and listen). It means they might have ideas that are new and fresh, even if you aren’t expecting that. It means you are going to be challenged by others in the room. All too often creativity and problem solving are squashed by the rationale of someone who feels the need to constantly lead the charge. So if that’s you, leave the room open to others’ ideas; let the stage be someone else’s and really try to observe and learn.

In your next meeting, sip your coffee, smile, and let the ideas soak in. Learn, challenge yourself, and most definitely DO NOT be the smartest in the room. It will make you stronger in your career and life.