Knowing when to shut up

We as leaders (and ostensible developers of leaders) spend a great deal of time (or should) on what we are going to communicate, how we are going to do it, when we’re going to do it, with whom we’re going to do it, etc., etc. Leaders are primarily educators. Education doesn’t happen without communication.

But there are many occasions when the best communication is keeping quiet. Close that mouth. Pull those fingers back from the keyboard. Put that smartphone down. Turn around and go back to your office.

To wit, I offer some personal reminders of when to keep silent and proving what an incompetent leader I can be:

• When someone wants to argue for its own sake, and you don’t. You can’t argue with that.

• At a staff meeting when your usually quiet staff member ventures a pretty decent idea on how to solve a problem, and you want to pipe in to make it even better.

• When a person you are coaching comes to you for decisions on things that you know he or she can determine without you.

• When it’s a subject you just love, but others don’t necessarily.

• When you observe two people arguing (not looking for agreement, but looking to “win”) and you know a fair bit about the subject.

• When you walk into the break room and overhear two people talking somewhat negatively about a third person with whom you have had prior conflicts.

• When a perfectly capable, yet vocally insecure colleague laments in your general direction, “I just don’t know what to do about this!”

• When your adult child is about to make a decision that they know is contrary to your repeated advice and a mistake would not be fatal.

I’m sure you can come up with your own experiences and occasions where a shut trap prevents walking into open trap. In each of these cases, opening my mouth would be ineffective at best, destructive at worst.

Paul Simon wrote song lyrics that instruct on this point: “There’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” This means that while the truth was indeed told, it was without compassion and caring for the other party. “Tough-minded, and tender-hearted,” as my dear CEO Garry Ridge describes it. “The genius is in the ‘and.’ “

There are many opportunities daily for us to selectively silence our contribution to the communications around us. Our influence on people in our environment will dramatically improve as we reduce our input.

A tip for how to do that is to ask yourself this question before you open your mouth or touch the keyboard: “Why am I talking?” Notice the acronym formed by the first letters of each word of the question.

If you can ask yourself that question, and look for honest answers, you’ll find that the reasons dictate whether or not you proceed. You might start out saying “to add value” or “to help the person succeed,” but after an acid test of self-examination you might conclude “to feel smart” or “to have more control.” If the answer is related to any sort of personal gain alone, then it probably isn’t something you should proceed to communicate.

Sometimes I don’t ask myself this magic question and I later regret having opened my mouth or sent the email. Every time I’ve remembered to ask it, I’ve made a much better decision.

Often times, not all, the words never leave me — to good effect. And when I do end up choosing to talk, at least I know why I’m doing it, consciously.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He is vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at

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