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There Is A Good Time To Shut Up!

by Rhoberta Shaler, Ph.D

Clamming up as a 'safe' way of evading a potentially painful conversation is seldom a good idea. But occasionally, prudence dictates keeping the mouth closed when opening it would cause more problems than it would solve. How do you judge when's the right time to do what?

No, I'm not advocating the silent treatment! That is just wrong—a control tactic for people with poor communication skills.

The silent treatment eliminates any hope of collaboration or co-creation while creating hard feelings that last and last. It is, though, very important to know when to shut up—to end the conversation before things get worse.

There is a major difference between intelligent silence and learned unresponsiveness.

Many people shut down as a non-committal way of handling potentially painful conversations. For instance, if I admit to using the postage meter for my personal correspondence, I might get yelled at. If I lie, then, I'll feel guilty. If I say nothing, it might blow over, or the supervisor's attention may be drawn to something, preferably someone else...

The kind of silence we react to most is calculated aggression.

"I refuse to speak when what others want or need from me most is communication."

"I purposefully withhold my part of the conversation and the other person's frustration mounts and he pours smoke from his ears. He's fuming and all I had to do was be quiet."

That is a nasty control tactic that drives people nuts—and drives them away! It has only a very short-term benefit and the potential for long-term problems.

"At work, people may avoid me, but only for as long as they look for a way to get rid of me."

"When I clam up, I can evade myself. I do not have to come to grips with my thoughts, feelings or fears if I do not articulate them."

This can be a personal safety tactic, however, it will stop any progress you may desire in both your personal and workplace relationships.

Shyness may factor into this, but it has a cost. A passive approach to the workplace, hoping that people can read your mind, give you what you want and need, or unearth your skills and ideas is no way to advance. If you are waiting to be 'discovered' in this way, you will likely be disappointed. That could cause you to fume internally and make yourself sick and miserable.

So, what to do? How do you know when to fall silent for the good of all?

How do you tell what silence means when you are faced with it? It is not wise to decide what another person's silence means. It can be difficult to find out; however, you must persist if the relationship has value or must be preserved.

There are 2 kinds of silence, the result of "shut down" or "shut up":

1) "Shut down" occurs when a person closes up, refuses to communicate and/or turns within. It can come from fear, concern, a desire to control or, simply, lack of communication skills, confidence or ideas.

2) "Shut up" is having the wisdom to keep the mouth closed when opening it would cause more problems than it would solve. In all cases, before you "shut up", clearly let the other person know why you are choosing to do so at that time. It is up to you to distinguish for your communication partner(s) that you are exercising wisdom in managing your communication and to tell them what you will do next to further the relationship and the discussion.

What To Do In The Face Of "Shut Down"

1. Ask a question that cannot be answered with a yes or no.

2. Leave ample time for him or her to answer. People have different processing times.

3. Be and look approachable, interested and ready to listen. Give the silence a name, e.g. "I'm not sure what your silence means. Please tell me."

4. Do not allow the time together to end without a response from "The Clam".

5. Ask straight out, "Are you concerned about how I might react to your thoughts or behavior?" or "Am I wrong in assuming you are uncomfortable talking about this situation?"

6. If the issue is important, be clear that it must be talked through now or at a date you will set in the near future. It is NOT going away.

When To "Shut Up" For The Good Of All...Particularly Yourself

1. If you're not sure of your facts, shut up.

2. If you are waiting for more facts that will influence the situation, shut up.

3. If the other person is already raising their voice, shut up.

4. If you are so angry you could spit, shut up.

5. If there is not enough time to talk something through, shut up now and make an appointment to talk.

6. If you cannot trust yourself to speak civilly, shut up.

7. If you have nothing sensible to say, shut up.

Remember though, it is important to communicate your reasons before you shut up. That makes all the difference. It is pro-active, intelligent and thoughtful.

There is wisdom in knowing when to speak and when not to. Shutting down is not a strength; shutting up certainly can be.

Know the difference and be wise. There is a good time to shut up!

You can learn much more about managing the behavior of those who shut down, the 'clams', in Robert M. Bramson's excellent book, "Coping with Difficult People".

Dr. Rhoberta Shaler solves "people problems" at work by making it easier to talk about difficult things. Dr. Shaler speaks to, trains and coaches executives and entrepreneurs worldwide in the communication skills essential to creating powerful conversations that reduce conflict and anger, build trust, and streamline negotiation. The rewards: stronger teams, optimized productivity and increased profits. Author of over a dozen books and audio programs, Dr. Shaler's new book, "Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work" is receiving rave reviews for "helping people to play nicely in the company sandbox". She is the founder of the Optimize! Institute in Escondido, CA. Visit the Institute's website for information on upcoming teleseminars and programs and to subscribe to Rhoberta's free newsletter.


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Saturday, 24 Mar 2018 12:32 AM


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