Pause and Think photo from Shutterstock“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
― Mark Twain

Many times it’s difficult not to respond to someone, especially when we feel we’ve been attacked or provoked. Our natural impulse is to react defensively and all too often our impulsive response makes things much worse. It can make you look defensive, close-minded, hostile, and insecure and allow the other person to think less of you. Restraint requires emotional maturity and it’s especially challenging when someone consistently pushes your buttons. Sometimes the best response to a difficult person is not to respond at all, or at least not to respond immediately.

Remaining silent in certain situations prevents us from saying something we’ll regret and allows time to sort out the appropriate response. We might even conclude that it’s not worth our energy to offer any response or we could decide to schedule a time to air our views when we’re in a less emotional state.

Not talking is not necessarily a passive approach in relationships. In fact, it can be the precursor to developing strong relationships with healthy communication. When you’re quiet you could be more introspective, tune into the other person’s needs and become more sensitive to what matters to the other person. Whether you’re seeking to build a business or personal relationship, active listening while being silent can allow you the space to tailor a more thoughtful response. You can garner more respect and come off as wiser when you’re silent. So how can you know when to share your thoughts and when it’s better to remain silent?

When Should You Refrain from Speaking Up?

Whether you’re trying to win an argument, make a great impression in an interview, endear a friend or build respect with a prospective prospect, knowing both when to speak and when to listen can help you avoid coming off as a self-absorbed know it all. People tend to listen more to someone who has a reputation for speaking up when he really has something valuable to contribute versus the person who is always talking. Think to yourself; is this a good time to refrain from any speech, to ask for advice, to inquire about the other person, to offer my perspective or to just listen? Taking a pause to reflect on your response could help you discern whether you should refrain from speaking or speak up.

When You’re Angry

A wise woman (my maternal grandmother used to say), “Your words are yours until you speak them. Once they’re out you allow others to own them”. She also said, “Imagine those were the last words you ever said in your life. If those words aren’t ones you’d be absolutely proud of, think twice and perhaps this will help you refrain from erring in judgment of what to say when you’ve been provoked”.

Handling Complaints

When someone is sharing a complaint about you or your business it’s usually best to remain quiet and listen to them: You can learn more about yourself from customers, prospects, co-workers and a boss that gives you feedback than from someone who is aloof towards you. Try to see the kernel of truth in what they’re saying even if it seems irrational or overly harsh. Withhold judgment till the next day; Try to “sleep on it” to gain perspective. You can even say, I’d like some time to think about this before I respond. Having self-control in tense situations is difficult. It’s like lifting weights. The more you exercise the muscle, the easier it gets. It’s always best to make decisions about what we say when we’re in a non-emotional state.

When it comes to fielding customer complaints, being silent and listening to their issues is critical for developing trust. Being a good listener shows empathy and it could be the beginning of a positive relationship with a customer. For every customer who bothers to complain, it is said that twenty-six other customers remain silent. Listening to customers makes it easy for customers to give feedback about problems they’re having. Customer feedback is like gold in a business relationship; it allows you to identify and fix problems before they escalate and can strengthen the bond between you and your customers. The same holds true with a boss or co-worker. If they have a criticism of you, the natural impulse is to be defensive. Knowing what the other expects of you could help you attune your behavior and skills to meet their needs. In many cases this can lead to better collaboration and a more satisfying relationship.

When Customers Offer Feedback

When customers share their story, they’re not just sharing pain points. They could actually teach you how to improve your product, service and business. Listening and remaining silent allows space for them to share their insights that could help you innovate more effectively to meet consumers’ needs.

In a New Relationship

It’s also smart to refrain from being too chatty when entering in a new relationship. Ask open-ended questions and then wait to hear the other person’s response. You could learn important things about the other person’s background and interests that could help you determine in which areas you’re similar and where your differences lie. Withhold sharing information about yourself until you know more about the other person — her biases and her perspective. This way you’ll be more likely to find common ground and will be less likely to say something that’s inadvertently offensive or antagonizing.

Once Someone Has Already Agreed

Ironically, some people feel awkward when they actually get what they ask for and then they persist to explain, defend or sell an idea to the other person. If a person has agreed with you, it’s best to stop talking about that subject and move on. There’s no need to rehash your point. Silence is better. It allows the other person to digest what’s been agreed upon.

When Someone Disagrees

Sometimes saying less or nothing at all is better than defending your position. There are times where it’s more productive to “agree to disagree” than to try to persuade someone to buy into your reasoning. Being selective regarding what you fight for shows discretion and emotional maturity. Needing to win every fight or prove your right on every issue gives the impression of a know it all and pushes people away. Better to be known as reserved than to develop a reputation as being dogmatic.

When You’re Being Attacked

Our emotions can get the better of us and this typically only leads to one thing – more dissent. The wise person doesn’t offer a knee jerk response to every criticism. She remains quiet when attacked to gain perspective and responds once she has clarity on that issue.

When Others’ are Gossiping

It’s always better to avoid gossipers and to refrain from participating in office gossip. Idle chatter only leads to discord and pulls down the moral in a group. The gossiper may think he’s interesting but in truth he’s sending a loud signal to other people that he’s less trustworthy. People figure that if he’s talking about this person today he could be talking about me tomorrow. Having a strong network comes from building allies. Gossiping can diminish your reputation for creating good will and diminishes leadership potential; a true leader identifies strengths in others and empowers them to be powerful. Gossipers do the opposite. They weaken the person whom they gossip about as well as weaken themselves.

When Someone Else is Talking

Of course, silence isn’t always the right approach in business. There are times when speaking up can make a business deal or could prevent a catastrophe from happening. If you know something is wrong and you are the one who can improve a situation, then it may be worth risking speaking up. The challenge for when to speak up and when to hold back is a matter of discretion. A wise person is able to discern when to alert others of an impending problem and knows how to deliver that message so it enhances his reputation and his personal brand.

If you are one who is typically silent and restrained, then this advice might not be necessary for you. You could be the introvert in the room with great insights who is more comfortable refraining from sharing. If this is true for you, you may need to push yourself to speak out more frequently. But if you’re typically the first person to speak up and often regret that you spoke out too soon, you might want to consider trying to be less reactive and reflect on the situation by consciously pausing before you speak. Think to yourself, “will my talking bring me closer to this person or to this group”? If your answer isn’t a definitive “yes” then it may be better not to talk. If nothing else, you may learn something about the other person that could be useful in a later context. Perhaps then you’ll have something meaningful to say that will bode well for your reputation and for building that relationship.

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