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Curiosity Humility

Speaking is Disempowering: The Value of Shutting Up

How many essays have you read about the power of active listening? Given the volume of writing on the topic, are you curious about why so many people seem so bad at it? I have an idea: there is not enough written about the complementary idea of shutting up.

Our ability to learn when to shut up is arguably more valuable than any active listening techniques we can master. Try something the next time you are tempted to speak: Stop, count to three, then ask yourself: Why am I about to open my mouth? Is this about me (merely demonstrating something that I know or wish to share because of how it makes me appear)? Or is it genuinely for the benefit of others?

More than any of us would like to admit (or perhaps more than any of us fully appreciate), we speak merely to increase our status or relevance in a series of conversations. Many years ago, I participated in an Agile Systems Engineering Workgroup for INCOSE, and was fortunate to spend time with a particularly well-rounded engineer who introduced me to the work of Keith Johnstone, an improvisational theater pioneer. In his famous 1979 work, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Johnstone offers a valuable and breathtaking illustration of how this sort of dynamic plays out in everyday conversation. I promise that once you have read the following excerpt, you will never see a meeting or simple daily interaction the same way again:

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn’t reproduce ‘ordinary’ conversation. They said ‘Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. For some weeks I experimented with scenes in which two ‘strangers’ met and interacted, and I tried saying ‘No jokes’, and ‘Don’t try to be clever’, but the work remained unconvincing. They had no way to mark time and allow situations to develop, they were forever striving to latch on to Intetesting’ ideas. If casual conversations really were motiveless, and operated by chance, why was it impossible to reproduce them at the studio?

I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Everyone on stage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motives for each action—no doubt the production had been ‘improved’ in the decades since Stanislavsky directed it. The effect was ‘theatrical’ but not like life as I knew it. I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had. When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises.

‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.

Here’s a conversation quoted by W. R. Bion (Experience in Groups, Tavistock Publications, 1968) which he gives as an example of a group not getting anywhere while apparently being friendly. The remarks on the status interactions are mine.

MRS X: I had a nasty turn last week. I was standing in a queue waiting for my turn to go into the cinema when I felt ever so queer. Really, I thought I should faint or something.

[Mrs X is attempting to raise her status by having an interesting medical problem. Mrs Y immediately outdoes her.]

MRS Y: You’re lucky to have been going to a cinema. If I thought I could go to a cinema I should think I had nothing to complain of at all.

[Mrs Z now blocks Mrs Y.]

MRS Z: I know what Mrs X means. I feel just like that myself, only I should have had to leave the queue.

[Mrs Z is very talented in that she supports Mrs X against Mrs Y while at the same time claiming to be more worthy of interest, her condition more severe. Mr A now intervenes to lower them all by making their condition seem very ordinary.]

MR A: Have you tried stooping down? That makes the blood come back to your head. I expect you were feeling faint.

[Mrs X defends herself.]

MRS X: It’s not really faint.

MRS Y: I always find it does a lot of good to try exercises. I don’t know if that’s what Mr A means.

[She seems to be joining forces with Mr A, but implies that he was unable to say what he meant. She doesn’t say ‘Is that what you mean?’ but protects herself by her typically high-status circumlocution. Mrs Z now lowers everybody, and immediately lowers herself to avoid counterattack.]

MRS Z: I think you have to use your will-power. That’s what worries me—I haven’t got any.

[Mr B then intervenes, I suspect in a low-status way, or rather trying to be high-status but failing. It’s impossible to be sure from just the words.]

MR B: I had something similar happen to me last week, only I wasn’t standing in a queue. I was just sitting at home quietly when …

[Mr C demolishes him.]

MR C: You were lucky to be sitting at home quietly. If I was able to do that I shouldn’t think I had anything to grumble about. If you can’t sit at home why don’t you go to the cinema or something?

— Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

Have you ever been Mrs. X, Mrs. Y, Mrs. Z, Mr. A, Mr. B, or Mr. C? I suspect you have been all of them at one time or another; I certainly have. More distressingly, we’ve witnessed this very same dynamic play out before our eyes every day of our lives. More often than we realize, we speak in an attempt to elevate our status, rather than for the benefit of others.

Whenever I revisit this excerpt, it amplifies my desire to shut up in almost every situation imaginable; it’s better to let others have the silly status competition, I remind myself.

Speaking and status play become especially problematic during the sorts of discussions that occur during daily software engineering and IT work, which was the context for the conversation with my INCOSE colleague who introduced me to Impro. Allow me to share a story from my career (with names changed) to illustrate this point in ingeniare situ.


The scene: A requirements elicitation meeting with software engineers; a business analyst (Hal); a CEO (Stan); and the CEO’s right-hand man (Oliver).

The context: Discussion of a thorny business process problem with no clear answer. Stan & Oliver have very different views on what the solution might be, and they are both quite strong-willed in their vision. Hal is an eager engineer, always ready to offer solutions to any problem at hand, with a seemingly bottomless pouch of solutions.

The group gathers in a small room to discuss the issue. The entire team, including the software engineers, has heard about the business process issue for a few weeks, and everybody came prepared to listen to Stan & Oliver with the intent of bringing everyone’s different perspectives to the table.

Stan & Oliver begin to argue about their competing visions in front of the whole group. All the meeting participants ask questions and make suggestions, but both Stan & Oliver resist feedback. Hal, in particular, makes several false starts at articulating what he clearly feels is a brilliant idea (attempting to gain status), but Stan & Oliver are not ready for it. They are more interested in fighting each other’s views than hearing from anybody else.

After 20 minutes of this, both Stan & Oliver start to slow down, betraying a certain weariness. At long last, they begin looking around the room, with an openness to feedback. Their eyes, however, are more certainly trained on Hal, who they trust more than anyone else present. They look to Hal in a way that a golden retriever might, after being deprived of food for two days. Hal, a dutiful lieutenant, is ready with what he perceives to be a brilliant solution (and to embrace the status he has been granted), and the mood of the room — weary of the arguing — allows him, at last, to go into great detail about the idea he has been pining to offer.

Stan & Oliver seem relieved, and let Hal know that they think his idea might be the best solution. The group agrees to codify the new process into software for the next sprint.

After a week of hard work and a sprint review, the solution is put into production. Everybody is happy, particularly Hal. He’s proud that he was able to diffuse such a difficult situation with his ingenious idea.

But a week after that, Stan & Oliver are not happy with the solution.

Hal is devastated. He comes to me, and tells me the backstory. “My first idea was a failure. But I have two more. What do you think I should do?”

I suggested to Hal that none of his ideas mattered.

“Hal,” I said, “You will undoubtedly need to have another meeting similar to the one you had two weeks ago. But this time, I want you to do something different. Stan & Oliver will once again argue in front of the whole gang. But when they look to you, I want you to remain silent. The issue is that our suggestions are enabling them to avoid the difficult conversations they need to have in order to come to a solution that they both believe in. They want you to feel special, but that won’t solve their problem. I tell you what: I will join your next meeting to support you. If I think you are going to open your mouth in a way that allows them to avoid finishing their difficult disagreement, I will send you a message over instant messenger to help keep you in check.”

Hal agreed. We scheduled the meeting for the following day.

The format and tone of the second meeting was uncannily similar to the one two weeks’ prior. Stan & Oliver continued their now-infamous argument in front of the gang. But the room was quieter this time; Hal had shared my conversation with him and had asked all of the software engineers to take a back seat, as was his own plan per our conversation.

After another 20 minutes of arguing, Stan & Oliver once again grew weary. Predictably, their eyes veered toward Hal, with the very same golden retriever look that Hal had experienced before. Hal looked so incredibly eager to give in. There was a tremble, a redness, an eagerness…then I typed “Shut up” into the IM window in my laptop.

Hal looked down. He looked back up. He took a breath. Stan & Oliver looked at him for about 10 seconds, with no sound uttered. They looked at each other, and at the floor, and at each other, for what was probably only 60 seconds but what seemed like an eternity.

Then, eyes were back on Hal. But Hal dutifully kept quiet.

After 15 or so additional seconds, a magical thing happened: Oliver said to Stan: “I think we need to take this offline.”

The look on Hal’s face was the look of someone who was able to breathe after two minutes underwater — a palpable sense of calm and relief. The meeting ended as any meeting of this type would…with a unanimous eagerness to leave the room and move on to better things.

Stan & Oliver argued daily for two weeks after that meeting.

At the end of those two weeks, Oliver came to Hal and explained that he and Stan had come to an agreement, and they determined a way to address the situation in a surprising way: changing an upstream business process that the engineering team assumed was essentially immutable.

The team got busy writing up specifications and coding the new solution. Two weeks later, the revised software and business processes were put into production, putting a definitive end to the arguments between Stan & Oliver. (Well, at least about this issue.)

This is what led me to coin the phrase “Speaking is disempowering.”


Hal’s desire to offer a solution enabled — in the negative sense of the word — Stan and Oliver to avoid their obligations to argue. In opening his mouth, Hal got in his own way in providing a solution to Stan and Oliver’s problem.

My advice to anybody in a similar situation is to remember that when we take center stage, we force others to the edge of the stage. That presents a real danger.

I believe that “Speaking is disempowering” tells a different story than the more traditionally-offered “Silence is golden.” (Although I do love the modern twist: “Silence is golden. Duct tape is silver.”) It is wise for us to remember that speaking carries a high degree of risk: risk in interfering with the status of others; risk in alienating others; risk in short-circuiting conversation. We often believe that opening our mouth will bring about positive change (feeling like a form of power), but the change it brings is just as often at odds with what we want or need to achieve.

The more we shut up, the more that people within earshot of us are able to draw their own conclusions, in ways that are both satisfying and lasting for them. Our real power comes from the self-control that allows that to happen. When we speak — when we are on center stage — we actively remove the privilege for others to speak and be heard.

Don’t ever forget to listen. But please raise a glass for shutting up.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtzhvJh9NRY.

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