The value of silence and knowing when to keep your mouth shut cannot be overstated.
The wisdom to understand when not to speak is one of the greatest peace of mind and life upgrades you can possibly make.
No more getting sucked into pointless arguments.
No more saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and making the situation worse.
No more being bothered with matters that aren’t your problem.
But knowing when to let your silence do the talking is a more complicated matter.
Because sometimes it’s good to speak up, depending on the context of the situation. Arguing can be better than trying to make peace with someone who is treating you or others disrespectfully. Standing up for yourself against a bully may require conflict.
It’s valuable to speak up and be heard in those situations, if for no other reason than to ensure the other person understands you are not a doormat to be walked on.
We’re going to take a look at some situations in which to keep your mouth firmly closed. For each of them, we’re going to discuss how to actually do that.
1. When you’re irrationally angry.
Anger is a healthy, totally normal emotion that everyone should feel from time to time. What’s not healthy is acting or speaking out of irrational anger.
The intensity of anger can create a blinding effect. It causes people to shut down, dig into their own defenses, and prepare to fight.
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it is so much harder to get a meaningful resolution to the conflict when you’re angry. Yes, there is generally a resolution, but it might not be meaningful or useful. It might just be pointless squabbling or a stalemate where both parties go off to brood in their anger.
Take some time to cool down if you get heated or feel like you’re losing control. Inform the person that you’re too angry to have a reasonable discussion right then, and you want a few minutes to cool off. Hopefully, they will give that to you. If they don’t, consider physically removing yourself from the situation so you can get a few minutes of your own.
2. When you’re arguing with angry people.
Some people just live for their anger. Society is generally more accepting of anger than sadness or fear. Sadness and fear can be construed as weakness, and no one wants to show weakness when they know it can be used as a weapon against them. Instead, we tend to use anger because anger forces other people to hear us. Then we don’t have to appear vulnerable.
Some people are just struggling with their own sadness and trauma. Other people really enjoy their anger, because it’s energetic and it makes them feel alive.
Whatever the reason, avoid engaging and arguing with angry people. Not only is it going to go nowhere, but if they are the kind of person that revels in it, you will just end up feeding their anger and making the problem worse. You generally will not win with anger when dealing with an angry person.
There is an easy and a hard way to deal with that kind of anger. The easy way is silence. They have nothing to feed on and attack you with if you simply refuse to engage. The other, much harder way is with kindness. Responding to anger with kindness can completely turn a situation around, largely because angry people don’t know what to do with it.
A lot of people will have this preplanned event in their heads on how a situation should go. They get angry and start yelling at a person; the person starts yelling back, the conflict spirals and escalates. But if you respond with kindness, that interrupts the narrative they were prepared for and completely throws them out of their expectations for the encounter.
3. When you’re tempted to overshare in conversation.
Sometimes people share too much in conversations with others. Revealing too much sensitive personal information at the start of any type of relationship can completely throw the other person off and cause them to withdraw.
Try to keep the conversation positive and light. Stay away from sensitive subjects like religion, politics, and money. Also, mental health. Mental health is a sticky subject for a lot of people that can cause some serious waves. There’s a lot of language out there to “live your truth” in the mental health space, but that should come with an asterisk beside it to qualify the statement.
Live your truth, but understand that other people may not be receptive to it. Other people may be struggling with things they don’t want to hear or talk about because it’s triggering or difficult for them. An information dump on traumas and life’s problems is not a great way to kick off a new friendship or connect with coworkers.
Give the friendship or relationship some time to develop before you dive into more personal things. People need a chance to warm up to you and decide if they want to be friends or not. Rushing that process will alienate other people. Silence is often the better option.
4. When someone tells you a juicy bit of gossip.
Don’t be a person who receives or passes on gossip. Gossip can be incredibly damaging because it is not often a total reflection of the truth. The story will inevitably change as it gets passed from person to person. That’s also assuming the initial gossip was correct, to begin with. You never know if someone maliciously started a rumor or just misunderstood something they had perceived.
The other problem with gossip is that it demonstrates you are an untrustworthy person. You passing on other peoples’ problems or secrets doesn’t make you special or put you in the know. It just tells other people that aren’t also gossips that you can’t be trusted with sensitive information. Untrustworthy is not a good look to have in your relationships.
Let gossip die with you. If you hear it, don’t pass it on. If someone wants to involve you in it, inform them, “I’m not interested in talking about other people.” and step away from the conversation if you need to.
No good comes from gossip.
5. When you feel like complaining.
Complaining sure can feel good sometimes. The problem with complaining is that it is negative energy that you are feeding. Complaining causes you to focus and dwell on the problem, which means you aren’t focusing on better things. That’s depriving yourself of peace of mind and happiness.
Sometimes you need to complain, though. The right times to complain are when you see a wrong that needs to be righted or a problem to be solved. Those are valuable times to complain because other people may not realize that there is a problem.
But complaining just to complain is a total waste of time and emotional energy. It doesn’t provide any catharsis and will only make your day worse.
How can you tell the difference? Consider what you hope to accomplish by complaining. Is there a tangible goal or resolution?
“It’s way too hot in here. I’m sweaty and sticky!” is a valid complaint with a potential solution. You can open a window, turn on a fan, or turn on the air conditioner.
“God, I hate going to work. It sucks so hard.” Okay? So what’s anyone supposed to do about that?
6. When you don’t know the answer.
“Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln
Silence is a great policy when you don’t understand what’s going on. That might be debating a subject you aren’t really educated on or having an opinion about someone’s life that you don’t really know.
The idea behind the Lincoln quote above is that people can think whatever they want, and they may eventually realize that they are wrong.
But when you decide to rant on a subject matter you don’t know enough about, you tell the world that you lack self-awareness and humility. You’re telling the world that you aren’t willing to admit that you don’t know something. That’s bad because it demonstrates dishonesty. How are the people listening to you supposed to trust you?
It’s okay to not know things! You’re allowed to say, “I don’t know enough about that to have an informed opinion on it.” You don’t need to contribute your opinion. In fact, silence can be far more valuable because it opens the floor for other people to share their knowledge.
7. When other people have the spotlight.
Some people struggle with letting other people have the spotlight. It may make them feel anxious and cause them to speak out to bring attention back to themselves. This is definitely a habit you want to break because it’s not a good thing. It is not a behavior that will win you any favor with the people you’re talking to or dealing with.
Avoid one-upping other people. You can share your stories and perspective; just don’t make it a competition. Instead, consider how to deliver the information in a way that doesn’t invalidate the other person. An excellent way to do this is by using your experience and knowledge to relate to the other person and getting excited about their experience.
Here’s an example:
Them: “I finally finished this difficult hike last weekend!”
Wrong: “Dude, I finished that trail three years ago. Have you hiked XYZ trail? It’s way harder.”
Right: “Oh, that’s so awesome! I love that trail! Do you have another target yet?”
And another one:
Them: “I just got back from my vacation to Hawaii!”
Wrong: “Ugh, I wish I hadn’t gone. It was too crowded, and I got sunburnt.”
Right: “Oh yeah? That’s awesome. I loved scuba diving. What did you end up doing?”
It’s not so much that people have a problem with others relating their stories and experiences. It’s that it’s often done in a competitive or invalidating way.
If someone is sharing something with you that they are excited or happy about, lean into their positive feelings and ask questions about the experience.
Then, sit back, be silent, and let them do the talking.
8. When you’re tempted to lie.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t lie. Once people figure out you’re lying, you’ll never get back their total trust again.
The exception to the rule is in personal safety. If you have to lie to keep yourself safe, then that’s what you do. Survival isn’t always pretty and reasonable people aren’t going to hold that against you.
But most scenarios aren’t going to be that extreme. Lying can be tempting to save face or try to preserve the feelings of someone you care about, but it’s not the right choice. It’s not kind to lie to someone about a difficult thing and keep them from learning just because you don’t want to make someone feel bad.
Sometimes you have to make people feel bad with a kind, ugly truth to encourage their growth.
Do not participate in the lies and games of others. It’s better to be silent or decline to answer. By declining to answer and staying quiet, you are preserving your own honesty.
9. When you feel uncomfortable with silence.
Some people just do not do well with silence. They find themselves in silence and feel intense anxiety and pressure to break it, say something, and get the conversation moving again. This may point to social problems like developmental issues or social anxiety.
Silence isn’t uncomfortable for a lot of people. In fact, it can be the welcome glue that binds a deep conversation with the person you’re talking to. Just to be in the moment with that person can be a deeply gratifying, fulfilling experience.
Break the silence when you have something meaningful to say or discuss. Avoid arbitrary conversation just to hear a voice. Practice sitting in silence with a friend you trust if you need to.
10. Whenever you are about to speak (so you can think first).
There are many ways the art of conversation is practiced. Some people are right there in the moment, ready to respond as soon as the other person is done with their statement. They aren’t necessarily listening. They are just listening to formulate their reply.
That can be the right thing to do sometimes. For example, if you’re partying and having a good time with your friends, no one really expects you to have good listening skills.
But active listening and how you respond becomes much more important when you’re having personal or deep conversations.
Active listening is a skill that needs to be developed. Remove distractions, set down your phone, turn off the television, and look at the other person while they are speaking. Don’t think about anything other than what the other person is saying. Then, take some time to think about their comment, and consider your reply before speaking. Then speak.
Silence allows other people to be heard. Use your silence when other people express their emotions or try to have a difficult conversation with you. Use that silence as an opportunity to listen well to what they have to say, and you will find that silence is a powerful thing.
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