How to keep your mouth shut

I have a genetic disorder known as “can not keep my mouth shut.” If I think someone isn’t being honest, or even if I just disagree with them strongly, my arm raises, and my mouth engages, well before my brain can calculate the possible damage.

I have been in recovery for years and am here to share what I’ve learned.

As a rule, if you insist on speaking your mind, you will inevitably find yourself in an environment where everyone hates you. Most people can not handle the truth (or what you believe is the truth). And the more you shove it in their face, the easier it is for them to ignore you. You simply become the person who always complains. Your ideas will be shot down simply because of the reputation of the mouth they come from.

The trick to keeping your mouth shut is this: put the desire to effect positive change above your instinct to tell people they’re wrong. The later almost never leads to the former.

Back in my early days at Microsoft I worked on strong teams where you were expected to have opinions. If you saw something stupid happening you were obligated to raise your hand, say “I think this is stupid and here’s why.” If you were right, you were applauded no matter how senior the people in the room were. I argued with group managers, VPs, and many other tough, smart people far more senior than I was. If I was wrong, I was dismissed, but not scolded. I might have heard praise for not being afraid. I thrived in this environment and assumed this was how the world worked.

But later,  in a new job at Microsoft in a group known as MSTE, I discovered a different world. No one spoke their mind in public. Few people worked hard or asked tough questions. Quality of work, and morale, was low.  I felt obligated to mention these facts as often and as loudly as possible to leadership. I even expected to be rewarded for telling people how bad things were. Why wouldn’t they want to hear this? I thought.

Before I knew it, I was that guy. The guy who always complains.

In my egocentric view, the work around me was well beneath the bar. But I didn’t stop to think the group had its own bar, it’s own culture and it was not my job to set it. And I was far from having enough respect from anyone to be seen as a leader, which would be required to change the culture anyway.

It took months of suffering to realize I was in a different culture with different expectations. It blew my mind to realize there were other cultures at all. To achieve the same positive effects my opinionated nature had early in my career, I’d have to adopt a very different approach.

I also realized in the past, in other groups, progress happened not simply because I was right and took a stand (as much as my ego wished it to be true). It happened because my boss, or his/her boss, listened to my points and took action, or granted me the power to do so. Having an idea changes nothing unless someone with sufficient power, and genuine interest, does something about it. The idea alone is never enough. Nor is saying it out loud.

In the movie Glengarry Glenn Ross, Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) gives perhaps the meanest lecture of all time to a bunch of salesmen. Why is this lecture possible? Why didn’t they ignore him or beat him up? Is it Alec’s strong chin and trim physique? No, it’s because the owners of the company asked him to do it. He’s allowed to open his mouth, and speak a certain kind of truth, however unnecessarily mean and adversarial it is, because he has the support of the people in power (You can watch this amazing scene here – NSFW). You could never successfully behave this way unless someone with more power then you allowed you to.


There’s another scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, where a salesman (played in the movie by Al Pacino) yells at the sale manager (played by Kevin Spacey), never to open your mouth until you know the shot. If you don’t know the angle being played, anything you say might ruin the plan (you can watch the scene here).

This is a great rule to follow before you raise objections or offer big ideas. No matter how right you are, if you care about effecting change, you should never open your mouth without some sense of who will agree with you and who won’t. If you can anticipate the angles and responses, and judge, even by guessing, if there is a 80%, 20% or 0% percent chance anyone in good standing will follow your lead in support of what you say, you know whether it’s worth opening your mouth. It’s a world of difference of perception when someone respected says, after you speak, “he might be right” and when there’s only silence. And of course, in most cases your percentages go up if you raise your objections in private, rather than in a large meeting where egos are at stake.

These days, as an independent, I’m invited to visit and speak to different groups every week, in different cities and countries around the world. I depend on my ability to evaluate the culture I’m in each and every time.

Of course there are times when the BS has piled up too high and you have to speak the truth no matter the consequences. Forcing an issue can be the only way to get it the attention it deserves. But pick your battles. If a year goes by and you haven’t taken a single stand, I’d likely call you a coward (Nothing in 12 months was worth making a stink over? You have to draw your sword now and then to remind people you have one). But if you’re taking a stand every day, you’re either a glutton for punishment, an egomaniac, or too stupid to realize you’re working for the wrong people.

How to say things well, including the tough stuff, is another matter entirely and one I’ll save for another post.

Meanwhile, to help with my own recovery: how do you decide when to open your mouth, and when to keep it shut? At work or at home?

173 Responses to “How to keep your mouth shut”

  1. solesman

    Wow, this is me 100%. It’s gotten so bad for me at work, I’ve even contemplated quitting. I know I should just shut the hell up but I end up spouting off eventually. No one likes me there.

    1. Rosie

      Gosh, sounds like me 100%. I just couldn’t take it anymore and quit my job. I regret it a little because I liked my job and now I can’t find one. I’m pretty sure they’re going to miss me.

  2. Ms.'d Potential

    Me too… I can’t tell you how many positions I’ve been in – 3, maybe more, where I’ve been penned as someone who should be moved into a management or even executive level and missed out because of this. For me, my intentions are good, sincere and kind but end up hurting someone and ultimately myself and my family(loss of income & stability). I see now and hope to continue to see that it’s best to just keep my mouth shut. It’s tough because I want to help people but I will continue my ‘recovery’. Thanks for the post

    1. Ms.'d Potential

      Just a note. I’ve been more aware of it the last 10 years or so and have improved – A LOT. This post just reminds me, I’m not alone and to continue to work on it. Thanks for the constructive comments.

      1. Caroline

        How did you get help?

  3. Adrianna

    Currently, I am in a relationship and it seems that I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut on anything. He said that I make him feel like shit sometimes because I don’t hold my tongue. I genuinely don’t know how to stop my mouth and I am willing to try anything! I love him more than anything… I really don’t want to continue to make him feel that way… please… any advice you can… please…

    1. Nina

      If you’re constantly irritated or critical of someone you may be with the wrong person. I’ve learned that.

  4. Wendy

    OMGness! This is me!!! Can this behavior be corrected to the point where I can rewrite my wrongs?

  5. Sadafski

    Thank you for this article. That’s exactly how I am. And it’s really tiring. Really would love to keep my mouth shut! 😞

  6. Richard M. Boyce

    I agree 100%. It’s all about your Audience. You can’t reason, educate, or inspire a Rock, a Log, or Sea Weed. If your surrounded by Numskulls and Neanderthals, its best to keep your Wisdom to yourself !

  7. Lady u

    I need help on how to keep my mouth shut and mind my own business in office.

  8. Deborah

    Listen again to “The Serenity Prayer”. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

  9. Omari akil Midgette

    In July 2 2016 I got in trouble for telling my business to my sister friend I did. Told her the wrong things yes I said I am upset and angry yes. My sister was upset with me for that. I was 23 years old then. I know better to run my mouth off to people yes I do. I didn’t ride my bike for two days. I don’t want to do that again no. I shot it down rejected the repeat yes. I am doing better at 24 yes I am. I ain’t going to repeat anymore no. Just don’t act up anymore

  10. Tightropewalker

    I struggle with this very issue. I am extremely opinionated and strive to go against popular opinions even when I agree with them. I think it is because I hate myself and the society I live in. I learned in my twenties that 99% of people are not worth paying a year attention to. I learned I my thirties that 99% of my opinions are not worth listening to. In my forties I have realized that everything is open to interpretation and everyone will interpret things as they have been conditioned to. So speak your mind and stop giving a Shit because all of this life is a joke anyway. Fuck your job and fuck your life. Oh…..and fuck your kids too. All of you.

    1. Nina

      You seem to be so angry that you’re at risk of harming yourself or someone else. Please seek therapy.

  11. TheTalker

    This is me! The Talker! I sometimes say the wrong thing intentionally to see the response I get. I am starting to think I do this because of my own insecurities. Like someone post earlier, The Serenity Prayer, puts a lot of this useless chatter into perspective! Praying about this right now!

  12. Caroline

    Thank you for this article. I can’t stop talking, I think I have been like this most of my life, I get some kind of “high” for it. Please tell me where I can get help. I am so addicted to facebook and my closer friends stopped liking my comments that are meant to help them. After all my talking, “I crash” and feel aweful, I have even tried to wear a watch to remind myself not to talk, right now I work almost by myself which helps me, I remember being in a church class and the teacher pointing out that I raised my hand to much, I feel like even God wants me to stop and my influence can hurt people even though I mean well.

  13. Big Mouth from the south

    I was just fired from my 1 month job today last job was 3 months. It was going so well and my boss gave me a great review just last week. My new co-workers were constantly praising me for taking charge and getting things done around the office. Then BAM Im handed the pink slip. Reason: We fill you aren’t a good fit for the company. People came to management and said you were negative and complained a lot. But in all actuality I was just trying to help and I felt I was speaking on behalf of the cowardly staff. Besides that things were improving and getting done. No one complained about that. I thought thats what they hired me for, at least the job description said so. I am not one to sit by and let things pile up. I’m also a doer, get the job done. But I believe my mouth engages along with my work ethic and thats what constantly makes me lose my jobs. I actually just realized a lot about myself through this article. Thank you for the post and thank you for letting me vent! Back to the job search for me :-)

  14. Fired a lot

    I feel so much compassion for all of you, especially those who don’t know why this keeps happening. I have had 40 jobs, been fired ten times, learned to leave before it got to that point. I am well educated and clearly present well in the interview (or they wouldn’t hire me). Many times I was hired to “take charge”, “fix things”, “improve sales or customer service “, etc. When you begin, the people who created or ignored the issues in the first place are going to get bent out of shape. No matter how competent, cheery, successful, politically adept you are, the work world is,l a popularity contest. I wish that had been explained to me back in high school. Chances are the person who hired you is just doing as told and no one there really wants to rock the boat to improve things at all. If you are like me, you see the big picture, the problems, the positives, the solutions and you think, I’ll be critical but I’ll also offer the solution. Trust me, you must wait to be asked what you think. The most success I have had has been 20 years;operating my own business. I still had to answer to clients and government authorities. But, it eliminated the whole office politics aspect. Wishing you all the best and I hope this helps someone!


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