When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

In business or personal relations, a word not spoken may be the choicest word of all

When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

By Jean Parvin

The owner of a printing business was delighted when another company wanted to buy one of his used printing machines. After careful calculations, he fixed a price of $2.5 million and formulated his arguments.

When he sat down to negotiate, however, an inner voice told him, “Wait”. The buyers quickly filled the silence with a rundown of the machine’s strengths and weaknesses. The seller said nothing. Then the buyers said, “We’ll give you $3.5 million, but not a penny more.” Less than an hour later, the deal was made.

Opportunities to improve a situation by “zipping your lip” come up all the time in everyday dealings with others. Sometimes the benefit of keeping your mouth shut may be that you won’t have to eat your words. Take my friend Ben. Like many of us when we are unsure of ourselves or trying to be polite, Ben sometimes blurts out things that come back to haunt him. The first time he was invited to dinner by his brother’s new wife, she served tomato aspic. Ben hated the stuff but wanted to compliment her. So he raved, “This aspic is great!” She was so flattered that she remembered—and served it to him every time he visited for the next 15 years!

Sometimes an unthinking remark, no matter how innocently made, can have more serious consequences. Harold and his wife once ran into neighbors in their apartment building late at night. Startled, he tried to be friendly and said, “I hear congratulations are in order.” There was an awkward silence. Later Harold’s wife reminded him that the woman had recently miscarried. “Nowadays,” Harold says, “if I’m momentarily thrown, I count to ten before I say anything.”

Not only is there wisdom in knowing when to keep your mouth shut; there are practical advantages as well. Lawyers tell story about a man accused of biting off another fellow’s ear in a brawl. A defense attorney spent the morning challenging the prosecution’s main witness. He thought he had destroyed the man’s story but couldn’t resist one final verbal blow.

“You’ve admitted that you were not very close to the scene of the alleged crime and that you didn’t see my client bite off the ear. How can you possibly testify against him?” the defense attorney demanded.

The witness paused, then smiled and said, “I saw him spit it out.”

As the saying goes, “Few men ever repented of silence.” Or few women.

My husband was under so much pressure at work when our first child was born that he became somewhat distant from me and the baby. After a few weeks of this, I was exhausted and burning to vent my feelings.

One day I wrote him an angry letter. Then, I don’t know why exactly, I put the letter aside. The next day my husband offered to change the baby’s diaper. “I guess it’s about time I learned to do these things,” he said.

I never did find out what caused his change of heart, but I gratefully tore up the letter. I’m glad I gave him time. A blown up would have accomplished nothing, and he was great after that.

Waiting is a strategy that is too often overlooked in all kinds of situations. Sometimes it’s a wonder what a small dose of determined silence can do.

My mother recalls the time she accompanied her friend Mary Ann to return a gift during the after-Christmas sales. The scene at the department store was pandemonium. Mary Ann asked for a refund, but the busy clerk said the dress couldn’t be returned and walked away to assist another customer. Mary Ann simply plunked down the dress by the cash register and waited.

Ten minutes later, the clerk returned; Mary Ann smiled and continued to wait. The clerk busied herself at the register. Several more silent minutes passed. Then, without a word, the clerk picked up the dress and disappeared. After about three minutes she returned—with the money! Mary Ann’s patient and polite silence had paid off where a loud harangue might well have failed.

There are, of course, times when it is important not to keep our mouths shut—to counter injustice, to soothe a friend, to straighten out a misunderstanding. At such moments, we are obligated to speak words. Here, too, a moment’s reflection can make your remarks more precise—and effective.

Michele, my college roommate, was raised as a Quaker, but she had Jewish grandparents who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Last year, friends who were unaware of Michele’s background complained that their son had married a Jewish woman. They had refused to meet their daughter-in-law and were making their son miserable. Weighing a friendship she still valued against her discomfort at blatant bigotry, Michele decided to speak up. “I’m proud of my heritage, and I’m sorry you feel they way you do,” she told them, “but your comments are making me very unhappy.”

Stunned, Michele’s friends apologized. They also took her words to heart and, not long after, made peace with their daughter-in-law.

Michele had carefully considered the effect of her words; then she spoke them honestly and forthrightly. The result was better understanding. This is the single most important rule to remember in deciding whether or not to speak: ask yourself if what you are going to say will improve a situation or relationship.

Researchers who study the rhythms of conversation recognize the important role turn-taking plays in our conversations and relationships with others. “Silences regulate the flow of listening and talking,” explains psychology professor Gerald Goodman, co-author of The Talk Book. “They are to conversations what zeros are to mathematics—crucial nothings without which communication can’t work.”

The proper rhythm of conversation involves both getting and giving attention. The magic of a silent, attentive listener is that a speaker becomes calmer, says psychologist Stephen Bank. The speaker’s heart rate slows, he breathes easier, his jaws relax and his shoulders drop. If the listener is attentive, it shows. The speaker, in turn, relaxes and feels warmer toward his listener.

Whenever you are angry or anxious and find yourself wanting to break in, take a sip of water or consciously fold your hands and smile, suggests Kevin J. Murphy, author of several books on effective listening. You may find that such simple steps help you control the situation.


In the past, psychologists used to say that we should “talk things out” with others. But, increasingly, I find that getting along with another human being sometimes demands tolerance and silence.

Adele Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, tells how silence conquered the nightly battle over bedtime between a mother and her eight-year-old son, Jonathan.

One night Jonathan came downstairs as usual after being tucked into bed. “Mom, I can’t sleep!” he said.

“Oh, you can’t sleep. Hmm,” his mother replied. She stopped, looked at him with compassion and waited. A full minute passed without a word.

At last Jonathan spoke. “I think I’ll put on my favorite pajamas,” he said. “Then I’ll sleep better.” And off he went to bed.

It’s not always easy to let those you love experience pain, frustration or anger. You want to relieve their problems instead of letting them find their own solutions.

Joanna, Faber’s teen-age daughter, came home one day looking distressed. Faber said, “Joanna, something happened,” and her daughter burst into tears. “We sat on the sofa, and I held her while she sobbed,” recalls Faber. “Ten minutes later she took a deep breath, looked at me and sighed.  ‘Thanks, Mom,’ she said. Then she got up and left.”

Faber never did find out what was wrong. A long, attentive, loving embrace was what Joanna wanted most. Then she would solve her problem on her own.

“Your silent support can provide the soil in which the other person solutions begin to grow,” says Faber. “Silence is not withdrawal. Silence comes out of respect. It says, ‘I’m here for you, but I’m not going to get in the way.’”

Like a composer who knows that the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves each of us must realize that our silences can be as expressive as the words we choose. The result is greater harmony and effectiveness.


2 thoughts on “When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

  1. Vicki M

    I love this site, honest and straight forward advice …silence and patience – keeps things in perspective.

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