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Keep It Shut Or Open Up?

Silence is powerful. Knowing how to use silence as a tool is so essential that it has become a recurring theme in several of my Finishing School for Modern Women classes.

In negotiations, silence can help you get what you want. In selling, knowing when to zip a lip can help you close the sale and save you from coming off as a sleazy salesperson. In tough conversations and speaking with power, clamming up can save relationships and potentially keep you out of danger. At times, silence is the best answer to give.

As a teacher and speaker, I use silence like punctuation. Taking a big pause before and after saying something important gets people’s attention, so they will listen and think about what is being said. Whether teaching college students or webinars, I always wait for someone to answer after I ask a question, no matter how long it takes.

Silence builds tension. Waiting for the next person to talk is like waiting for the next shoe to drop. It’s interesting to see how quickly people get uncomfortable with a gap in the conversation. I timed it at a recent speaking engagement and noticed that people started getting twitchy at six seconds of silence after I asked a question.

Although it makes others uncomfortable, it is important to give some air after asking a question. This pause gives people time to mull over their responses. Expecting instant decisions is often unrealistic, so I’ve learned to get comfortable with the pause.

Knowing when to keep our yap shut, in general, is another powerful form of silence. Not saying anything can save time, relationships, and peace of mind. Just because there’s a thought running through our heads doesn’t mean we have to share it. This is especially difficult for people who process their thoughts verbally. Talking about their thoughts makes the cogs in their heads turn, so they don’t always think before they speak. I’ll bet you know someone like that.

Speaking our minds can be risky and sometimes comes with consequences, like losing a job, friends and family, money, the respect of our peers, and possibly our freedom. Staying closed-mouthed certainly reduces conflicts. Since most people want to avoid conflict like the plague, they don’t always know when to bring things up or remain mute.

My biggest concern about knowing when to speak is that we’re at a time when we can’t afford to stay silent. Our right to bodily autonomy, the most fundamental right of a free society, is at stake. People are losing their lives for expressing their authenticity. Mothers and babies are being put in mortal danger because people in power won’t allow them the healthcare they need to survive. Our children’s lives are at risk every day as guns become more accessible. There is so much division and anger, it’s heartbreaking, and we can’t let it continue. We must learn to build bridges and work together again.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tell the difference between speaking with power or not speaking at all. I love a good discussion, so I took this question to my Facebook friends, who also love a good conversation. I asked them, “How do you know when to keep it shut or open up?” We came up with this through a rousing discussion of 86 comments.

  • It isn’t an impulsive decision. Think about how you want to respond before doing so.

  • If the issue keeps nagging you in the back of your brain, it’s time to say something.

  • After weighing out the consequences of speaking up and staying quiet.

  • When people warn you to shut up.

  • After determining how much it impacts your life. If it isn’t your circus or your monkeys, mind your business.

  • Listen and understand the situation, then decide how to communicate the intention.

  • When you’ve picked your battles, and this isn’t one of them.

  • Every situation is different. Consider if it is the right place, time, venue, person, and audience, and if you have the right energy to speak up now.

  • Ask yourself if speaking up will be accurate, kind, necessary, and helpful.

  • Ask yourself if it is your ego talking or if you’re feeling hurt because of an inconvenience.

  • Keep it shut if you feel compelled to share unsolicited advice or opinions.

  • Once you’ve determined if you are safe enough to speak your mind.

  • Listen to your intuition.

  • By knowing the rules, boundaries, unwritten policies, biases, and social norms before you speak, you understand how to act within them and how to break them.

When it does make sense to speak with power, remember these tips:

Don’t soften your sentences. 

Using modifiers when speaking softens what we say and undermines our confidence. For example, take the italicized text out and see you much more powerful you can be.

“That sort of makes me uncomfortable.” 

Maybe you should leave.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

Give yourself credit.

Use “I” instead of “we” when referring to the work that you have done and your opinions. If you don’t give yourself credit and stand up for yourself, no one else will. 


 Quit apologizing.

We lose credibility when we apologize unless an apology is in order. You have the right to stand up for your beliefs without having to criticize anyone else’s beliefs and without apologizing for yours. 

Accept compliments with confidence.

In being unable to accept compliments, we automatically try to humble ourselves, nearly apologizing for what we’ve achieved and giving away the credit. 

Give honest, direct feedback.

The best way to give someone feedback that honors them and speaks with power is HARD: Honest.

Appropriate. Respectful. Direct.

Every election year is filled with uncertainty, no divisions of us versus them, and politicians battling for dominance. I don’t have to look into a crystal ball to see that this year will be more intense than ever before. We’ve got to maintain our mental health, but it is not time to give up the fight. 

Rather than automatically staying silent or speaking out, take some time to consider if this is the right place and time to speak with power. Because we can’t fight every fight, think about what is important enough to you to take a stand. Fight for what you believe, take breaks, and get enough rest to continue the work. But most of all, don’t give up taking a stand for what you believe is right. 

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” 


 Did you know I've published a book?  Learn more about it here!




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The Finishing School for Modern Women, located in Wichita, Kansas, offers classes to help women find their authentic selves, not because we need finishing, but because we’re never finished. We bring together women of all ages to learn from experts and each other how to claim our power in business, finance, communication, and life.

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1 Comment

Cindy Kelly
Cindy Kelly
Mar 01

Well said, Jill.

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