7 Times You Should Probably Shut Up
Awhile back I wrote I wrote a blog called “3 Times to Shut Your Mouth” which was—surprise, surprise!—about the nonverbal messages you send by literally closing your mouth. And while it is useful to know when to physically keep your mouth shut (spoiler alert: MOST of the time) in order to communicate confidence and credibility, it is perhaps equally as useful to consider when to, you know, SHUT UP—as in stop talking.
Here are seven times communication and relationships will improve if you keep your mouth shut. (And remember, actually close your mouth!) Avoid words when:
You’re not saying anything.
Most people find silence uncomfortable. If that includes you, you may find yourself filling up empty spaces with unnecessary words. You lose your audience if you ramble when the listener is ready to move on. The more you talk, the less likely you’ll hold attention.
You can tell nonverbally when others have lost interest. They become fidgety, make less eye contact, and develop a neutral or blank facial expression. Especially if your audience previously showed signs of interest—a still body turned or leaning toward you, a nodding or tilted head, and eye contact—the shift in body language tells you it’s time to stop! Change the subject, give another person a chance to talk, end the interaction, or simply allow for some silence.
You’re giving unsolicited advice.
You hate it when people try to fix your problems or tell you how to live your life. And so do your friends, family, and coworkers. Do everyone a favor and refrain. It never works anyway! Most of the time people think you “just don’t get it.” And if someone thinks that’s the case, whether or not they’re right, your advice is worthless.
If you’re asked or if it’s your job to do so, definitely share your perspective and experience. Generally speaking though, don’t try to solve everyone else’s problems. Just keep your mouth shut.
People can’t hear you.
If people literally can’t hear you, it makes sense to stop talking. What’s less obvious, however, is when people are capable of hearing words but not capable of processing them. Sometimes this is simply because they’re distracted. Don’t keep yakking at someone who isn’t giving you their attention. Shut your mouth and wait (patiently). A fully present silence often gets attention better anyway, compared to a multitude of words.
Overwhelming emotions can also shut down a person’s ability to hear and process. Rage, terror, and anguish can take up all the mental space a person has so that words make no impression. In these scenarios, there’s often nothing you can say that will help. You can, however, communicate presence, empathy, and boundaries nonverbally. Be present, hold space, and breathe. If you do feel the need to use words, your tone of voice will have a greater impact than what you say, so keep it calm and, depending on the situation, either caring or firm.
Words will make things worse.
Bite your tongue when what you have to say will ultimately hurt yourself or others. Like your grandma may have said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That doesn’t mean sugarcoating the truth or avoiding conflict—words that are painful to hear can also be constructive and ultimately healing. No good comes, however, from griping, criticizing, insulting, bragging, mocking, or gossiping with or to others. In the end, it hurts you—your well-being and your reputation.
Also avoid digging yourself into a deeper hole after you’ve said or done something wrong or embarrassing. You think you’ll talk your way out of it, eh? Good luck! A stream of words tumbling out of your mouth will just elongate awkward moments. And when you’ve screwed up, making excuses, backpedaling, or getting defensive definitely just makes everything worse. Use the “Break and Breathe” technique to transition out of the difficult moment and move on. Please don’t rely on words.
You’re waiting for an answer.
Okay, I admit I’m terrible at this one. When I ask a question, I don’t simply ask a question. I ask a bunch in rapid-fire succession. “What do you want to do for dinner tonight? Thai or Mexican? Or something else? Or would you rather get takeout? Or maybe there are leftovers?” Oye.
Especially as a coach, this is a habit I have had to learn to curb. When you actually want an answer, silence is your best friend. Filling in with extra questions or suggesting answers means you don’t trust the act of conversation. It’s a control tactic. You want to make sure the other person really understands where you’re coming from, rather than trying to understand where they are coming from.
Your first question is fine. And if it isn’t, that will be revealed in the answer… but if you keep peppering your conversation partner with questions, you’ll never find out anything about them, because you’re too busy trying to control the conversation. Give others time to think and respond. Give space—and how do you give space? Breathe slowly and calmly. (And stop staring. Find something else to look at.)
Someone else is talking.
Or, in other words: you’re supposed to be listening. There will, of course, be times in your life when you can and should interrupt or speak over others. In general, when someone else is speaking, shut your mouth and pay attention.
You need or want a big presence.
Silence speaks volumes. People remember more the less you say and the more you pause. It takes great confidence and some charisma to hold space, keep attention, and command a room without words. So, whenever possible, do that.
If you want to make an impression, shut your mouth, breathe deeply, claim space, and be present. Rely less on words and more on presence. Chattering away will not make people notice or respect you. Say what you need to say, and fill the in-between spaces with a strong, calm, powerful presence.
Silence truly is golden. (I seriously wish my neighbor’s dog could learn this lesson.) Yes, there are times when you can and should speak up. However, you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Use them accordingly—talk less, watch and listen more.
Change your communication, change your life.