How to Know When to Hold Your Tongue in the Workplace

Putting your foot in your mouth is never fun, but it’s even worse when that foot is clad in a high-heeled pump or a steel-toed work boot. Verbal mishaps at work can be especially humiliating (not to mention possibly ruining your career). But you’re supposed to be assertive, too, right? So how do you know when to speak up and when to hold your tongue? Here are some situations in which it’s (almost) always better to zip your lips:

When your only reason for speaking is to show off

Everybody likes to look good in front of the boss, but that shouldn’t be your only motivation for speaking. Speak up when what you’re saying adds value to the conversation, but hold your tongue if it only draws attention to how smart you (think) you are.

When your only reason for speaking is to prove you’re “in the know”

Sure, it’s great to be in on a secret, whether it’s a new product or a planned acquisition. But confidential information is confidential for a reason. If you blab about something that’s still in the works, you may actually cause the deal to fall through. And even if that doesn’t happen, if anybody ever finds out you talked…well, let’s just say you won’t have to worry about keeping confidential information anymore.

When your opponent is about to hang himself

Almost everybody has at least one adversary at work. Maybe it’s the person who’s being considered for the same promotion that you want, or maybe it’s just the creepy idiot who gets on your nerves. It doesn’t matter. When your opponent is doing a great job of making an idiot of himself, it can be tempting to go in for the kill. Don’t. There’s no need to sully your reputation and come across looking like a bully if your opponent is doing just fine on his own.

When you have something really important to say

No, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share a really important idea. It just means that you shouldn’t jump in the first time the conversation pauses for a millisecond. You want to speak from a position of power, and powerful people don’t force their way into conversations. Powerful people wait for a lull – or, even better, for a colleague to ask their opinion.

When you’ve been plotting the takedown for weeks

We’ve all done it – spent our time in the bathtub or on the treadmill thinking about what we’ll say the next time so-and-so does whatever it is that makes us so mad. But when the opportunity finally presents itself, it’s best to hold your tongue. If you’ve spent that much time plotting your response, it’s almost guaranteed to be more about revenge than about actually accomplishing something.

When you have no chance of coming out on top

Sometimes the balance of power is so out of whack that you have no chance whatsoever of winning, even if you’re right. Don’t blow your political capital on a no-win situation. If you’re going to stick your neck out there and make a stand on something, make it count.

Modern psychology teaches that we should always communicate our needs, thoughts, feelings, etc. But the reality is that speaking up at work won’t always turn out well. Your goal in the workplace isn’t to be nurtured; it’s to get the job done and advance your career. If speaking up won’t clearly help you achieve those goals, it’s time to hold your tongue.


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