Communication: Four Occasions When It’s Best to Keep Quiet

Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up”.

I think he has a point. Rarely though, do we consider that effective communication also means keeping quiet.   And yet, nothing can be more effective in reaching understanding than a well-placed pause, a time when we step back and listen, not only to others but also to ourselves.

It’s a discipline I think all leaders need to develop.  But first we have to be able to readily recognize when we are talking too much and listening too little and, as a result, eroding the depth and importance of our conversations.

So when might that happen to you? Well, I can think of a few occasions when it might and here they are:

When you’re angry ~(Subtext: I’m mad so I’m going to vent all over you so that I can feel better).

Anger sometimes compels us to put the mouth in gear before the brain has had time to process what’s going on. And that can make a bad situation worse.

Being on the receiving end of someone’s flare-up is also very off-putting and a sure-fire way of shutting down lines of communication altogether.

When you’re tempted to say any old thing to fill a void ~ (Subtext: I’m uncomfortable so I’m going to say something because somebody has to!)

Silence can be cringe-worthy.   For instance, in a meeting you put an idea up for discussion; you ask for some thoughts … and nothing happens. But, if you start talking just to relieve the tension, chances are, you are missing an opportunity to hear from someone who simply needs a little time to process the information before sharing his or her opinion.  So, tolerating pauses, pregnant or otherwise, could be a very positive discipline to develop.

When you’re convinced of your ‘rightness’ ~ (Subtext: I’m right and I’m going to keep on talking until you agree with me).

Sometimes we can fall in love with our own ideas so much that we make no space for the possibility that we may be wrong.  Clinging to a position and arguing its virtues can be great fun but if we are not willing to listen to others’ perspectives and soften the edges of our views in the face of new information, we become a roadblock to progress.

When you realize you don’t really know what you’re talking about ~ (Subtext: I’m lost but I’ll look like a fool if I stop talking now.)

Every once in a while I will embark on a line of conversation… and then lose the thread.  Instead of stopping to get re-focused, I will keep talking in the hope that eventually, I’ll get to the point.  I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this.  When it happens, it’s embarrassing but frankly so is taking people on a meander that you didn’t intend.  As for me, I find it helps to simply stop, mid-ramble, and admit that I have no idea where I was going.  We all have a laugh and get to move on to something more productive.

There is of course a common theme running through the occasions I’ve described.  Each of them is a self-indulgent response.  In communication, as in leadership, self-indulgence will get in the way of success every time.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams

21 responses to “Communication: Four Occasions When It’s Best to Keep Quiet

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  5. Dear Gwyn,

    Good morning.
    Happy New Year!
    Great post, as usual!

    I love your “silence” example. People seem to react in such a wide variety of ways to silence. For example, I remained silent and looking straight at a witness when I received an unresponsive, incomplete, answer to a question during a defendant’s deposition. After a couple of heartbeats, the witness oftentimes started talking again to break the silence. I was generally rewarded with my silence by getting some great information from the witness.

    I have learned through painful errors that silence is truly golden during times of anger.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Larry ~ Happy New Year to you too! Yours is a great example of a time when staying silent has its benefits. Thank you for sharing it! It’s always nice to see you here 🙂

  6. Gwyn,

    This is spot-on. I can relate to your 4th point – I call it, “My words are rolling downhill . . .and they can’t stop!” LOL!

    Western society values action. This sometimes creates the by-product of verbal noise. It’s especially helpful how you’ve framed up the subtext of each of your 4 scenarios – this helps us understand the consequences of speaking up when silence my be the better path.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Jennifer ~ I love the ‘words rolling down hill’ analogy. My words rarely come out that fast. For me, it more like climbing a ladder to nowhere…and then falling off. Either way, I guess we each end up at the bottom of something with little to show for it except perhaps a bruised ego 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience here. I’m happy to know I’m in good company!

  7. I chose “listen”as my OneWord365 for 2013. Your post captured most of my reasons for choosing this word! I’m printing and saving your thoughts :-).

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Chrissy ~ “listen” is a great watchword! I would do well to follow your lead on that one. I’m glad you found the post useful. It makes the writing of it worthwhile 🙂

  8. Abd Kareem

    A timely piece of advice for all of us to reflect and act. Thanks Gwyn for this wonderful post.

  9. I have another occasion to suggest:
    When you want to give advice: (Subtext: I know better than you what’s in your best interest and how to solve your problems). Advice often serves the advice-giver more than the recipient. Often, listening and gaining an understanding is the best policy. Sometimes people just want to be heard. Offering advice when the advice isn’t sought can undermine the process. Giving advice when not sought subtly communicates, “I know better than you how to solve your problems.” Simply listening can be powerful.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Margy ~ That is an important addition. Giving unsolicited advice is indeed a good example of a time when it might be wiser to hold our tongues. As you say, most people just want to be heard. Thank you for that and for adding value to the post!

  10. I’m so glad I found you! Love the blog posts I’ve read that you’ve written. I am also delighted to see the comments you get and your responses to each of them. You clearly value and appreciate the people who are your readers. I’m glad to be a new one of them. I’d love to connect with you “off-line”. Would you be willing to send me your email address?

  11. Oh, the shock of recognition. I am most guilty of the second and the last points. Time seems to extend with silence, doesn’t it? Yet, time 10 seconds without anyone talking and its blissful.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan ~ It may be shocking to recognize ourselves in some of these situations but it’s also kind of comforting to know we are not alone! Thank you. And yes, time does extend with silence which makes me think if I stayed quieter for longer I might not have become so old so fast 🙂

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  13. I’ve learned to stop doing #1 and #2 and I’ve never done #4 but I need to do a little more work on #3 🙂

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