When to Be Quiet, When to Speak Up

I freely confess that my biggest problems on the job have likely been the result of my own big mouth. Not as often as when I was in my twenties, but I still make mistakes occasionally. Other times I’ve screwed up by not asking or saying something that should have been asked or said.  Today I’ll share a few tips based on my experience learning the hard way. Maybe you’ll manage to avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into on occasion and learn the easy way.

When to Be Quiet

When you don’t know enough about the situation

I might’ve said this before, but being new on the job is a good time to listen more and speak less for one very good reason: you don’t necessarily know enough to provide useful input. This covers anything from technical discussions to shared jokes around the meeting table. The New Guy/Gal can do a very fine job of demonstrating his/her ignorance by making a wrong assumption or stating what seems like an obvious conclusion based on limited information, but in fact can go a long way toward creating a headache or uncomfortable situation.

Professional example: Two engineers are joking about a problem that happened before you arrived on the job. Do you: a) listen to discover the outcome, or b) offer your unsolicited opinion about what should have been done? If you answered a), you were probably better off. If you answered b), you don’t know if your suggestion was suggested by one of the two people talking already, was tried and strongly rejected by upper management, or was tried and failed spectacularly.

Social example: The group around the table is discussing the results of Southeast Conference (SEC) football over the weekend. Let’s say you grew up in the Great Plains (Big 12 Conference territory). When someone at the table asks who your favorite SEC team is, do you a) declare neutrality, b) pick a team, or c) vehemently pick none of them because you believe the Big 12 is obviously a superior conference? If you choose a), you’ll get people making strong suggestions about whom you should root for (and you can make that call on your own later). If you choose b), you’ll get some people in the room liking you, some disliking or dismissing you. If you choose c), you’ll earn the disdain of everyone in the room…not necessarily just because of your choice but because you added the comment about the obvious superiority of your choice (your tone of voice could also be a factor). Bad call.

Beyond these two situations, there are others, of course. If the group is discussing a topic with which you are unfamiliar, listen. Don’t “talk just to hear yourself talk,” as my mother would put it. In other words, the lesson here is: If you don’t know what’s going on and have nothing useful to contribute, keep quiet and listen.

When someone else is getting disciplined

As a kid, did you ever find yourself getting scolded by a parent, only to have a sibling pile on and start laughing? What usually happened? Your parent would likely turn on that sibling and warn them that they would be in trouble next just because they got involved. The business world works the same way.

Lesson: Don’t gloat, and don’t get in the middle of someone else’s mess.

When your question is not urgent

This can be difficult to judge, but some sample questions to ask yourself would include:

  • Is this a question of fact that could be looked up after the meeting?
  • Is this a question you just want answered because you’re curious about the topic?
  • Is your question not directly connected to the overall purpose of the meeting?

If the answer to any of the above is “Yes,” ask later.

When to Speak Up

Taking responsibility

This is a corollary to the last situation, where a peer is being disciplined for something. Is the manager yelling at the person for something you did? If so, speak up, don’t “throw the other person under the bus,” as we say here in the U.S.

Asking a work-related question

Here are some times when asking a question in a meeting is worth doing:

  • Is your question pertinent to a specific work task you’re doing?
  • Does more than one person in the room likely need the answer?
  • Is the answer to your question not immediately obvious from the context (example, the schedule, cost, or quality implications of a decision)?
  • Does your question relate to a matter of your personal job security, pay, benefits, etc.?

If the answer to any or all of the above is yes (though some of my past managers would disagree with me on that last one): ask the question.

Bottom Line

As always, speaking up vs. not speaking up usually amounts to a weighing your desire to know something with the desire of others to proceed with whatever business matter is on their minds at that time. When in doubt, in a meeting, keep your questions on topic with whatever’s going on at the time. You can satisfy any personal curiosity after the meeting. You’ll be saving other people’s time and saving yourself a lecture. Trust me on this.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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