Leadership lessons from Confucius: what use is eloquence?

what use is eloquence?

或曰:「雍也仁而不佞。」子曰:「焉用佞?御人以口給,屢憎於人。不知其仁,焉用佞?」
Someone said: “Ran Yong is good but not eloquent.” Confucius said: “What use is eloquence? A smooth tongue creates many enemies. I don’t know whether Ran Yong is good; but he definitely has no need for eloquence.” (1)

The ability to speak clearly and persuasively is vital for getting on in the world no matter what profession you are in. People who speak confidently are far more likely to be regarded more favorably than their shy or tongue-twisted counterparts even though they probably know a lot less about what they are talking about than the ones who sit quietly besides them.

Smooth words and witty repartee are great for breaking the ice, but they can soon wear out their welcome if people find out that the style is not backed up by any substance or sincerity. Empty promises that are not matched by deeds can easily lead to disappointment or worse. Confucius isn’t exaggerating when he says: “A smooth tongue creates many enemies.” There’s a good reason why so many politicians and members of the so-called chattering classes are held in such low esteem!

Confucius leaps to the defense of his follower Ran Yong against what he sees as this unjustified criticism of his lack of eloquence. How do you react when people make similar comments about your colleagues? Even more important, how do you help them to become more comfortable about voicing their thoughts in business and social interactions?

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) This is the first appearance of the follower Ran Yong in the Analects. He is said to have come from a difficult family background. Perhaps this was the reason why he was a man of few words. You can read more about him here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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