Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Is it ever appropriate to move to silence?

Candace BertottiCandace Bertotti is a Master Trainer.

Q Is it ever appropriate to move to silence?

A The first question to ask yourself is, “Is this conversation crucial?” If the stakes aren’t high (someone was rude, but you’ll never see them again), emotions aren’t strong (sure you disagree, but you’re not upset or that passionate about it), or there are no opposing opinions (it may be a touchy issue, but you’re all in agreement), then silence may be an appropriate course of action. That said, know that your silence communicates something, and by not speaking up, you inherently give other people the power to determine your meaning rather than stating it clearly yourself.

If the conversation is crucial, then what?

If you find that your motive for speaking up is not healthy, your negative emotions are controlling you, you lack respect for someone, and/or you don’t feel safe, it may be appropriate to move to silence—but only temporarily while you take a quick step back. Be careful not to use this “pause” as an excuse to sweep the problem under the rug or venture down a road of paralyzing analysis and unending preparation. Taking an hour or two to collect your thoughts, connecting to a healthy motive, finding a way to respect the other person’s dignity, and/or finding a private space to talk can make a big difference. Your opinion that someone else is an idiot is better left unsaid. Starting a dialogue about working better together with that same person in a private, safe space is essential.

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2 thoughts on “Is it ever appropriate to move to silence?”

  1. George Wilson

    Ms. Bertotti’s response is well thought out, and I tend to agree with her, especially the practical first step of discerning the real cruciality of the conversation (i.e. the issue and relationship at hand). She then offers several very relevant cautions that can have significant impact on the “Three Rs” — Relationships, Results, and Reputation. In short, I interpret and endorse those cautions as 1) My silence may allow others to determine my meaning; 2) Smart communicators quickly assess their motives, emotions, respect level, and safety, to evaluate their readiness for and approach to initiating dialog; 3) Pausing long enough to establish appropriate place, privacy — if warranted, and motives will help a healthy approach to dialog and a positive impact on the Three Rs. Infrequently but almost inevitably, despite our best efforts, we encounter someone who does not have healthy, productive motives, and clearly chooses to undermine safety, argue every point, and essentially fight for some undefined “win”. I must admit that on occasion, that presents for me a challenge and perhaps another question — how do we know when it’s time to respectfully end the conversation and move on? Thanks for making me think Candace…good stuff!

  2. Brittney Bulger

    Thanks George for your comment! To answer your question, I would agree with what Candace advised: take an hour or two to collect your thoughts (also helps to calm down a little bit) and find a private space to talk. You could say something like, “I appreciate you talking with me about this, but from what I’m gathering we’re not resolving the issue/coming up with a resolution. Let’s take a breather and pick this back up in an hour.” If they are not willing or seem to have that “just win” attitude then simply saying, “Well, I don’t think we’re coming to an agreement on this as much as I would like, but I’ll accept that we disagree on this and move on.” Hope this helps!

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