How to keep your mouth shut

I have a genetic disorder known as “can not keep my mouth shut.” If I think someone is full of it, 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. 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, rendering any good ideas you have entirely impotent. 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 to hold the desire to effect change above your desire to tell people how wrong and bad they are. The later almost never leads to the former.

Back in my early days at Microsoft I worked on strong, confident 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 scary, tough, smart people more senior than I, and in the culture this was fine, provided I had a point and made it well. If I was wrong, I’d be dismissed, but not roasted. I might even have gotten a small pat on the back later for at least 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 world of dysfunction, despair and passive/aggression. 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. And from previous experience i felt obligated to help raise the level of work. I expected to be applauded for pointing these things out. It was a kind of leadership action in my mind. But I didn’t stop to think the group had its own bar, and it was not my job to set it.

It took months of misery to sort out I was in a different culture with different expectations. Hell, it blew my mind to realize there were other cultures at all. To achieve the same positive effects my opinionated nature had on the earlier group, 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

Glengarry-Glen-Ross-Grab_510x317

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?

90 Responses to “How to keep your mouth shut”

  1. jane

    After just having a three month apprasial at work. My boss told me at first I was doing ok . I was asked if there was anything that inhibbited me and i said yes being bawled out by her in an open office. I dont think she liked this point. But i was at the point of walking out so i though i mention ed it. Then she pointedly told me at althougth the end of the meeting that im to keep my mouth shut , not express any opinion, ask enquiring questions. ! she said people have been saying ‘what the fuck am i on about’ . even though she gave it as advice. i ve been upset ever since. I have never been asked to keep my mouth shut. The negativity within the company was just abotu bearable now after this its impossible…… i read your piece. it makes sense but hard to swollow. Freedom of speech is also part of our identity. i just had my identity taken away

    Reply
  2. sandy

    Wow,
    Both of your microsoft examples fit my situation perfectly.

    I am a teacher and spent 11 years in an open and creative environment. I am now in a place where creativity is discouraged. I am beginning my 4th year and I have to learn to keep my mouth shut. I go back in a week. I love my kids (students) and it is very hard not to fight for them when they come to you for help. I feel like I let them down when I don’t speak up for them.

    Reply
  3. Mark Dunne

    I wish i could master this. I know it is my short coming as a manager, but i just can not get a handle on it. It has caused countless drama and additional unnecessary stresses in my life and at all cost i must get control. I guess it is simply just a case of think before you speak, but sometimes i think it through and come to this… (excuse the french) “Fuck this, why should i have to change who i am to please the people around me, is it not their problem if they choose to react or object, its not like i am not being honest”

    So to close, I believe don’t change yourself to fit in with your environment, change your environment to fit in with you… Still trying to find a way to do that haha. Maybe i am just being arrogant, and maybe this shows my inexperience as i am a young manager. Please correct me if you share a different opinion

    Reply
  4. Rachel

    I’ve been awake since 4 am , my sleeplessness is a result of evaluating myself as a person who notoriously speaks her mind on the subject of truth. I am struggling to find peace in my heart that will allow me to accept and ignore the stupidity, carelessness, and blatant poor behavior of so many people I come into contact with, including my neighbor and a couple of family members. So I typed in ” how do I keep my mouth shut” and I’m taking away that yes , I in fact care more about the truth than I care if I’m accepted by the people . Thanks for the information, its calming to know I’m hardly the only one who shares the gift of ” saying it how it is”.

    Reply
    • J. Ann

      Like another commenter I literally searched “how to keep my mouth shut” and landed on this article! Thank you for writing it as we share the same disorder. I have thought about my situation SO MUCH because I know exactly when I’m screwing up but yet can’t seem to let-the-damn-thing (“thing”being whatever stupidity is in my face at the moment) go. My husband says that I have incredibly high expectations – apparently so high that hardly anyone or anything can meet them. I don’t disagree with him but I do believe there are too many workplace/education/social environments where standards have disappeared. Maybe it was the way I was raised that makes me different…no matter, I’ll keep working at it because being “that guy” doesn’t help anybody.

      Reply
      • Brenda

        I did exactly the same thing just now after yet again, opening up my mouth when shocked by the comments my boss has made recently. I have been told by him many times not to challenge him.But I don’t view it as challenging him and I guess that is also part of the problem. I was wondering if I need cognitive therapy or something. Now, I am thinking we all just need a support group.

        Reply
    • TD

      I played Div I sports and I had a coach that I ended up disagreeing with more often than not. My immature attitude at the time was that I needed to let her know that she was wrong at all times and I needed to stand up for my teammates when she was coming down on them for reasons I thought were wrong. Why did I think this? I felt that my teammates would view me as the one that wasn’t afraid to speak out and that they’d recognize me as the one that would stand up for them when they wouldn’t even stand up for themselves.

      After 3 years of doing this, the only thing that I was accomplishing was creating a ton of friction and stress between my coach and myself who just thought I was a know-it-all who would never listen to anything she said. She’d shut me down whether I was right or not at that point. My teammates were afraid to tell me much of anything for fear that I’d berate them, too. And it wasn’t like they were backing me up either when I “needed it”.

      When you have something to say, think about what your goal is. What are you going to accomplish by telling them they’re an idiot? Is it to make them feel like an idiot, or are they honestly going to take your words to heart and learn from them? Probably neither. They probably just think you’re a know-it-all jerkface who won’t shut the f#$% up. It’s very easy to want to “teach them a lesson”. But, if you don’t come across it in the right way, it’s really just polarizing and puts them on the defensive …maybe forever

      Reply
      • Cat

        @TD I am totally with you on this. You’ve described my situation exactly. I’m searching for answers and so far all I can come up with is that I may benefit from therapy. If you find any good information on the subject, please share? The search continues.

        Reply
    • megan

      I understand were your coming from and I tottaly agree
      but another thing that I just had in mind is,how you tell people things how you speak it to them in a literal way or how blunt you are. And also know how contain your mouth in certain situations , you don’t want to always state your mind on everything that’s why god made it the way were we can think inside our heads were no one can hear us lol what do you think?

      Reply
  5. sara cannon

    Love this. Such a complicated matter – and it’s also hard for people to know when to speak up where praise and positive speech is due, without shortchanging themselves or others in the process. And, sometimes over-humility – not opening your mouth – can lead to decreased worth in the eyes of others. I think confidence plays a huge huge roll here, but its true that its a balancing act. :) thanks for the post!

    Reply
  6. ZAM

    Brilliant read!
    Finding the right time to make the move, is surely something everyone should practise and perform. But the tendency to open up and stand against wrong things happening around urges to move ahead and do it.
    And more often as mentioned you will be labelled as ‘the guy who always complains’ if you do that.

    Situations mentioned here can be related a lot. Thanks Scott!

    Reply
  7. raj

    This is a great article. I had a boss similar to that. The people under him some are way underpar. The simple rule of thumb existed. 20% do the work and 80% enjoy by talking. Lot of whiners in the 80% and talk how they are overworked and do nothing for the company. I do got impacted by the stupidity of my boss who got fired later and the remaining 80% is still enjoy the talking. I am a firm believer of walk the talk. People find 100 reasons not to do a thing and not even find 1 reason to do the right thing.

    Reply
  8. Anna

    This seems to be the issue with me. I do happen to speak before I think, more so at work. Me and my husband work together as a management couple, so really we need to be on the same page about certain things. This however is not always the case. We are very different. He is quite quiet and I am out spoken, and some times we clash on how we deal with a situation and what we prioritise. We seem to always argue about work and he claims that he is only telling me his feelings because he wants to help and that he is sick of hearing our staff complaining about me (apparently this happens more often than not according to my husband. Yes, I do not always consider all things before I open my mouth but this doesn’t happen all of the time, and I know that for sure. However, it’s like I have a reputation for it now so it doesn’t matter what I do he always thinks that it is my mouth that has got me into trouble. So what do I do now????Any ideas??? I thought I was getting better, but apparently not.

    Reply
  9. Nonamerequired

    “The trick to keeping your mouth shut is to hold the desire to effect change above your desire to tell people how wrong and bad they are. The later almost never leads to the former”

    It takes a good minute to wrap my head around this.

    Reply
  10. Frank

    This article summarizes my frustration with the corporate world completely. I have lost jobs because of my condition. I have trampled upon egos and intimidated the paranoid and insecure for 5 different companies in the last ten years in an effort to “make a difference”….and every time it ends the same way…..with me on the outside looking in. I have heard it from managers, Vice Presidents, directors and even owners, “Frank. You’re right…..but sometimes its better just to leave it alone.” So, the problem is them and not me, right? It sure doesnt feel that way. Glad I found this article…a big help.

    Reply
  11. Debi Silverman

    I, too, searched on the term “How to keep my mouth shut” tonight after my 4 month review at a new job. There are rumors that I am “mean”. I received several “needs improvement”s in areas including supervision and communication and several other areas related to these, all boiling down to the same issue of what I say and how I say it. I have another disease that has to do with wanting things to be factually correct. However, I have a boss who doesn’t really care about that issue if, heaven forbid, I have committed the crime of questioning a process to better understand it so I can carry it out. Instead of letting it go, though, unfortunately, I feel I have to have my side heard which is when the problems occur. My tone is different and people accuse me of yelling at them. Damn. I didn’t even raise my voice. I am told to be quiet and watch and learn, but I was hired because of my perspective and intelligence. Seems like a contradiction to me. And I only have a doctorate in the subject. I have never been in a job where I felt like such a failure, like everywhere I turn, it’s the wrong way.

    Reply
  12. Moody

    Yes, for me keeping my mouth shut is the most difficult thing in the world, especially at work.

    I have found just 1 solution, you have to become your own boss. By that I mean learn enough to start and rum your own business.

    I do not yet run my own business, but I am close to launching it. Every day at work is easier because I am one day closer. Why am I closer? Because i work at maximum capacity for 40 percent of the day doing work things and then 60 percent doing research and other tasks that I need for myself. Thats enough to keep me from getting fired, but I am learning a ton.

    So when someone is doing something dumb, inefficient, just plain wrong and telling me to do it the same way I smile and say yes boss. I smile because I know that this dumb way will mess up the system and cause even more dow time. And i will be studying on my employers dime.

    So it my employer wants to do things stupidly and not listen to my input, no problem. After a while I learned that keeping quiet actually creates more time for me to study. I dont have to ise my mental resources on tasks that habe no benefit to my future.

    You would be surprised how much you can accomplish with online courses. Especially if you are interested in anything at all to do with the web. Design, programming, finance, marketing, etc. You can learn it all while sitting at work.

    Your employer tracks your screen? Print it out or print it out at home and bring it in. Trust me its not that hard.

    People here talk about how things at work are so bad and poorly run. I say do a better job yourself. At the moment I have started contracting on the side. Doing work for a handful of clients. I have not built up enough clients to quit but in 6 months I think I will be ready to work for myself full time.

    As you may have guessed i do most of the outside work right at my day job. I do exactly what my company does, just on a smaller scale. I created SOPs and outsource the grunt work.

    The jackasses wanted me to just do what I was told. When you take an ambitious person and tell them that you create problems. Now they habe a direct competitor and my goal is to wipe out the company i work for in 4 years.

    Thing is that even a midsized corporation thats technology based has a hard time changing course when things go wrong. They have an even more difficult time when an insider knows all of their proprietary information and is going to crush then with it.

    So if you think things can be done better, DO IT. I know you can do it, but you will have to break some rules. If you cant stomach that then you are a loser. Sorry, people here talk about hard truths right? This is one of them.

    If you are afraid to take a risk then you will be getting shut up by someone else your whole life. Plus the stess is literally going to break you down and kill you piece by piece until you are a hopeless broken soul. So take a risk. If you are young and have some time take a smaller more conservative risk. If you are older take a big risk. Chances are you dont have much quality life left in you anyway. Make the most of it.

    But if you cant take a risk, then learn to meditate. Seriously go to a buddhist temple on a weekend and take ther free meditation course. Maybe you’ll be enlightenes and find inner peace. One guy I know who was a workaholic dis this and he claims to have found happiness. He is much calmer when i see him now so maybe it worked.

    But for the rest of you my message is this: go steal something, but do it in a smart way. That is how all fortunes were made (carnegie, rockafeller, bush). Dont believe it, read about these guys. Steal smart my friends.

    Reply
    • Emily Montès

      “If you are afraid to take a risk then you will be getting shut up by someone else your whole life. Plus the stess is literally going to break you down and kill you piece by piece until you are a hopeless broken soul. ”

      Wise words, and apt ones.

      Reply
  13. Becky Price

    Keeping my mouth shut is definitely a problem for me. Before I knew what was sneaking out of my mouth, I asked someone at church if he thought he was speaking for God. And yes, my unfiltered responses are quite often the result of listening to someone who is full of it. It is always important to be careful how you say the truth and never attend church on an empty stomach :)

    Reply
  14. Connie

    Scott, thank you for your insight. I have struggled for over a year with my management’s new approach of – “be direct, be honest, call each other out, make us the best in class” – and then thier constant slapping of your hand when the slacker you tried to encourage or prod along doesn’t like the disucssion or advise you presented. So I took your blog above, and tweaked it a bit to make myself a new office motto. I hope you don’t mind. It will sit on my desk until I learn to either “keep my mouth shut” or effectuate a “personal” change. Thanks again, Connie (Chicago, IL)

    It goes like this:

    If you care about effecting change, you should never express yourself without some sense of who will support your opinions and recommendations. If it appears that support for you is low, no matter the reason, it is better to remain silent.
    And furthermore, if after acknowledging a low level of support you continue your efforts to effectuate change, you are either a glutton for punishment, or too foolish to realize you are no longer in the right place.
    SB

    Reply
    • Emily Montès

      Connie, if you don’t mind I’m going to put that on my computer wall paper right now.
      Emily

      Reply
  15. Jo Jo

    Like most of the other commenters, I typed in “How to keep your mouth shut,” and this was what I got.

    I’ve read lots of people talking about truth, the stupidity of others, others being wrong, etc., but not many take responsibility for their own actions.

    I think the author is correct. What he’s basically saying is the old, “pick your battles” mindset, and also make sure you have money, power, or numbers to back you up.

    I need to shut up. It is rarely that I’m right and someone else is wrong; it is more a matter of opinion. I see it like this and you see it like that. It doesn’t make either of us wrong, it just makes our viewpoints different. This is something I had to learn the hard way after realizing that there are more ways to do or see something than just my own way.

    That took A LOT of reflection, self-awareness, as well as learning to be more aware of others rights to look at things differently than I do. Let’s face it, there are valid arguments on both sides of almost every subject and it more or less depends on who is stronger at the time.

    Reply
    • Senta

      I think a lot is about office politics. Many like (us) do not know how to play the game. We are the outsiders, looking in. The fact of the matter is that most difference of opinion boils down to the “how” not the “what”. Most of the time the “how” (unless it is illegal or unethical) is not that important any way. Another source of difference of opinion is priority. Who is to say our priorities are the right ones? Its managements prerogative to decide on priorities. We can voice our opinion, privately and then shut up.

      Reply
  16. Susan

    In addition to the problem you’ve described I am also an “over sharer”. I talk about my kids, my husband etc. today at my brand new job I found out my boss’s son goes to the same high school as my son. I couldn’t just leave it at that. No I found it necessary to tell my new boss that my son was suspended today for tweeting “inappropriate” comments about the school board on the school boards twitter account. Really I did. My brain the whole time is screaming SHUT UP!!!! I have noticed that in the workplace no one really talks about their outside life. That is going to be a challenge as that is how I connect and connecting is important to me for some reason. I need therapy.

    Reply
    • Nancy

      I feel like I could be your twin! I have the same illness — I tell too much personal information, probably in an effort to fit in, maybe?

      Not only do we need therapy–we need to form a club! I think we are a special group of people who need support from each other — we can tell our personal stuff to each other and then advise each other on what not to say outside of the club.

      Reply
  17. Dave

    Your first Microsoft job sounds like my dream job!

    Reply
  18. Fred

    How I wish I’ve read your article much sooner! But thanks, gave me much insight of what I must do and what I have been doing wrong that often get things out of hand.

    I still find it hard to shut up though, but in time I guess…

    Reply
  19. Brenda

    I feel so much better after reading this article and reading people’s comments. I am not alone! I would like to start a support group for people unable to keep their mouths shut. Anyone wanting to join one with me?

    Reply
  20. Angie Kasprzak

    I appreciate all of your comments.

    Reply
  21. Emily Montès

    Wow, thanks. I have moved to a place where the national culture is like MSTE compared to the Microsoft of your earlier days, as you cited.

    I found your site while looking for a way to defuse a power imbalance in a business relationship, using silence followed by, when pressed, the briefest statement of my point of view. I have found, to my shock and dismay, that as a person with no social status in this country, I shouldn’t speak, most of the time. However, I do need to bring about a change, so I’m looking for ways to do this without appearing rude in a society where politeness is everything.

    This could be a blog heading or book title: how to lead when you have NO vested power.

    I use the words shock and dismay, because the in business relationship concerned, I am the “client” or “service user” in a service that relies upon a frank exchange of views, but am not permitted to speak my mind, even in order to make this “service” function more effectively. I have moved to a country where service provision isn’t key, respect for protocol is. According to their protocol, those with no power don’t speak. I will be using the “less is more” approach in my meeting later today to terminate the service with immediate effect, without getting sucked into a cycle of complaining, blame, justification and power play!

    Wish me luck, I’m going to need a lot of it.
    Regards, Emily

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. How to keep your mouth shut …

    Am I the person always complaining?
    How do you decide when to open your mouth, and when to keep it shut?
    Or should you consider this at all?

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