We’ve all witnessed this. A wince-worthy moment when someone (our boss, colleague, family member) opens their mouth just wide enough to insert a foot.
For those in the spotlight, the results can be disastrous. Fast Company has chronicled the cringe-inducing gaffes of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson who alienated legions of devotees with a single sentence. Then there was film director Michael Bay’s ignoble stride off stage after freezing up during a CES introduction.
On an average day, bumblings among coworkers may not bring about a precipitous drop in stock prices, but they have a cumulative effect which when compounded by our reactions could have serious consequences. That’s when communication consultant Geoffrey Tumlin says it’s smart to play dumb—as in: holding your own tongue.
Tumlin, author of the book Stop Talking, Start Communicating, says, "This strategy benefits you, the other person, and the underlying relationship."
Not responding immediately allows the person you’re talking to a little time to self-correct a half-baked observation and prevents an otherwise working relationship from being damaged, he explains.
Not surprisingly, research shows that people with high emotional intelligence are good at self-regulating and helping others regulate emotions in interactions. If you’re still working on developing EI, fret not. Tumlin says anyone can learn to sit on their feelings in social settings. Tumlin suggests trying these strategies to maintain your own composure when your conversation partner is losing theirs.
Before any conversation heads into the red zone, make a mental checklist of the people in your life with whom you should stay mum. Tumlin says there may be some you’ll have to stay quiet with more than others, such as:
1. Short Fuses:
We all know someone who goes from zero to pissed off in about four seconds. Refraining from yelling right back is a start, says Tumlin, but it’s important to stay quiet, too. "When someone is upset, the more you talk the angrier they get," Tumlin observes. "Don't throw gas on the fire by trying to argue with someone who's already upset, and don't add more evidence of things that will make them even angrier."
Tumlin says these folk are not quite angry but they say things like ‘Can you believe it?‘ and rant on from there. Tumlin says they are generally not as problematic as the short fuse because they might not completely mean what they say. They aren’t looking for a conversation, either, he says, so it’s best to stay disengaged because you can’t take what you said back.
3. Serial Arguers:
You know the type, spoon-fed speech and debate practices, these people will take an opposing position just for the sport. Says Tumlin, "My recommendation is that you almost never engage them because a large percentage of them will even argue with themselves."
4. Contentious Conversation Partners:
This is a bucket category that can include your soapboxing Uncle Jim to your stand-up-and-sneer office mate because you’ve had a previous conversation that devolved into verbal mud slinging. Plan to play dumb in the future.
Playing dumb is simple, right? Just remain quiet until you can duck for cover in the restroom or retreat back to your desk. Not so, says Tumlin, because we humans are and tend to respond with comebacks, criticisms, and corrections.
Feel free to correct someone to prevent a mistake. "You're not being a know-it-all if you point out that the client meeting is at 2:00 p.m., not at 3:00 p.m.—you're preventing someone from missing a meeting," he says. Never correct someone to make yourself look or feel better. "You are being a know-it-all if you point out it actually wasn't Bill's Fish & Chips restaurant where you met the client from London, it was Sarah's Meatball Stand," he explains. "In the first case, there's something important at stake. In the second, no one cares but you and your ego, so let it go and play dumb."
When your conversation partner has egg all over their face, your impulse to eye roll, shake your head or even arch a brow needs to be kept firmly in check. Actions do speak louder than words, so a straight face and a silent tongue are both necessary to diffuse the heat.
You probably can't use silence exclusively without making an angry boss or client even angrier. "Most yellers usually tire out once the initial wave of emotion passes through them. Don't do anything that will make the wave last one second longer than it has to," he says.
Use attentive silence to signal that you are paying attention, says Tumlin. If you can't keep quiet, say things like "I hear you" or "I see this has really upset you" and other phrases that demonstrate you’re listening without escalating the matter.
"Once the initial wave of emotion has passed, you can consider troubleshooting the root problem if there is one, if you think it's safe to wade into the matter," he says.
Sometimes you can’t just stand there mute while someone goes off. Unfortunately active listening, the art of repeating back what you heard the person say, could have an adverse effect. "People get upset if they think that all we're doing is parroting them," says Tumlin, "It can easily sound like we're being condescending in their ears. It's safer to use fillers for the silence like "I see" and "um-hmm" instead."
If the person presses you for more substantive comment, Tumlin suggests saying "I don't know what I think about that" or something else equally non-committal. If they continue to push you for more after that, Tumlin advises telling them directly that you don't want to comment or to tell them the most gentle version of the truth that you can muster. "Actually, Dave, I don't really think that Jim's comments were all that far out of line."
"Playing dumb illustrates the power of communication in its absence and is one of the smartest, most altruistic moves you can keep in your conversational toolkit," Tumlin concludes. "We exert a profound influence on interactions with what we don’t say, type, or forward."