When in Doubt, Shut Your Trap!

To crib off Julia Child, one of the biggest lessons that I have had to grapple with as an adult is Mastering the Art of Keeping My Mouth Shut. In fact, this one deficit may have more to do with my need to re-boot than just about any other. Well, that’s probably not true. Usually, a whole host of factors gets us to the point where we are absolutely forced to confront the fact that our lives require re-booting, but a fat mouth can precipitate a crisis faster than just about anything else.


Previously, I always wanted to show off that I could fire back a clever retort or entertaining repartee faster than anybody else in the room. Growing up in my family, and amongst my college friends, having a quick wit carried with it an especially valued type of currency, so I was always on the prowl for my chance to get in a zinger of sorts. And I performed well in this—which is what led to trouble later on.


America is a nation and a culture that always celebrates those in first place. Fastest, smartest, strongest, prettiest, richest, savviest, you name it, we focus on the one who meets the criteria first and best. Except in our hurry to claim our personal superiority, we often miss critical warning signs that might change our response had we taken the time to notice, or occasionally, we trample over others in our race to the top. Such carelessness often results in hurt feelings, resentment, or simply a technical but hollow victory.


With my combination of a fierce sense of competition, a big mouth, and cuttingly clever remarks, I often found myself saying things that sounded way harsher and far less adroit in contexts which did not serve me. For instance, in my personal quest for gold, I occasionally agreed to do far more than was reasonable and then, once the pressure got to be too much, expressed my panic/frustration inappropriately. I regretted it then and still do so today.


But, we all make mistakes. The trick is to learn from them; n’est-ce pas?


One of the biggest lessons I am learning during this re-booting process is the importance of slowing down. News alert: there is no one to give you a Blue Ribbon for answering a question before anyone else. Careful thought and restraint in one’s choice of words will serve you far better than being the first in line.


That’s no new insight for me,” you may promptly and snarkily respond. “Tell me something worth my time.”


Ok, I will. In nearly every case, keeping your trap shut will serve you far better than blurting out your personal opinion or reaction or “helpful suggestion” with whomever you are speaking. Let them be the idiot out in front. Taking the time to formulate a measured response—even if, inside, you are dying to recite an entire doctoral study on the subject at hand—will get you further. Besides, nobody wants to hear everything you want to say!


Alas, in the past, I have had all sorts of extra efficient ideas, reasonable concerns and objections, droll witticisms, and probing insights that I found necessary to share. Even if I had been right 100% of the time, talking that much was a mistake.


It was a mistake because in my rush to prove my point, I trampled over others, injuring personal relationships I highly valued. It was a mistake because I didn’t recognize the various agendas at work so I waded into more than I knew which then hit me in the face. It was a mistake because by sharing all my good ideas, I wound up threatening others. It was ill advised because, sometimes, people aren’t interested in the fastest or best way to do something—they want to do it their way. It was a mistake because I wound up coming across as a know-it-all. And it was a mistake because others stole my strategies and claimed credit for my ideas.


When re-booting your life, a large part of your work is about figuring out a more effective communication technique for how you relate to the world. Contrary to what we were taught in school, speaking up first is not necessarily the smartest move. And what we didn’t understand was that the context in which exchanges are made makes a huge difference—not just the words and answers, but the manner in which the message is delivered and how much information is shared. Whether it’s communicating with your boss, your colleague, your spouse, a sibling, or the clerk at the store, you’re far more likely to “place first” if you’re smart about what you say and how you say it. When in doubt, silence is golden.


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3 Responses to “When in Doubt, Shut Your Trap!”

  1. helenga Says:

    As one of my favorite maxims says, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” 🙂

  2. grasshopper Says:

    great points!!

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