What to Say When You Have Nothing to Say

I’m late posting today because honestly I couldn’t think of anything to say. Has that ever happened to you? Obviously it’s a little different when you’re writing a blog column vs. attending a team meeting face to face or online. Silence can be risky in the workplace. What follows are some ideas to consider before you decide to say nothing.

Why is Silence Risky?

If you are expected to give a presentation, obviously you need to be prepared. Silence is not an option unless you want to receive some strange looks and a disciplinary discussion with your leader.

But let’s say the meeting is a discussion where everyone is expected to contribute. This could be a planning session or a discussion about how to handle a sensitive topic. You might think silence is the best answer if the subject matter is sufficiently challenging or controversial. This is still a mistake. Whether you’re afraid to speak your mind or just grouchy and not in the mood to talk, sometimes your voice is expected. Your leader might operate on the principle that a decision cannot be made unless s/he has 100% participation and consensus. Abstaining in that environment is not an option.

Or you might care deeply about a subject–whether it’s vacations or benefits or department strategy–but are afraid that your emotional investment in the topic might overwhelm your desire to speak clearly and constructively. The people in the meeting might be making what you regard as a terrible mistake or are overlooking an important challenge or viewpoint. If you don’t express your view, the decision could hurt you in some way. Do you want that to happen?

There’s an unspoken assumption in many corporate environments that “silence is consent.” That is, by saying nothing, it is assumed that you have no objections to a particular course of action. An unhappy expression or hostile body language are not the same as a spoken objection, which can go down in “the record.”

Overcoming Your Preference for Silence

Sometimes it’s helpful to wait until the end of a discussion before speaking up. By then, everyone else will have had his or her say, and you’ll know the opinions of everyone in the meeting. You’ll know who you agree with and who you disagree with. You might feel that someone expresses your view 99% but there is one addition you need to make. You might realize that your take on the issue hasn’t been expressed at all.

Even if you’re the minority opinion, you need to have the courage to express that viewpoint, especially if it’s clear that no one else will. You need not denounce an idea entirely just because you disagree with it. You could, however, express your doubts and ask the group to consider ways to overcome them.

Finally, if there are legal, regulatory, human resources, cultural, or ethical concerns regarding a policy being discussed, you owe it to yourself as an ethical being–a “heroic” technical writer, if you will–to make certain the people in the meeting are operating within the appropriate guidelines and to remind them of the consequences if they step beyond those boundaries. You might not like to be that person, but however uncomfortable it might make you feel, silence is not the best option.

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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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