Holding my tongue

Wanting to respond quickly to defend yourself or the company you work for when unreasonable allegations occur is a natural reaction. I have found that initially holding my tongue and more broad-based thinking and due consideration can often yield the best outcome.

Holding my tongue by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago a young staff member came into my office, clearly agitated about an evolving situation that included our company at the periphery. In her description of the situation, I could hear her conviction about jumping on the issue quickly and stomping it out. She had a plan that she passionately presented, and that plan meant taking action now. I heard her out, then reacted in a measured way to her proposal.

My assessment was that the problem was a tempest in a teacup and that we should just let it play itself out. It would die a natural death in a day or two, and the unreasonable allegations would simply have no life. Hitting the issue head-on would just inflame the situation and take us from the periphery, where we were unlikely to suffer any reputational damage and our involvement was very nominal, right to the center of the conflict and make us an active participant. The staff member thought that I was wrong in my assessment and did not give up easily on the argument that we should come out strong in our defence. However, the decision was made, and we held our tongue. There was no follow-on commentary involving our company, and the issue died out as quickly as it had flared up.

Assessing reaction time

This situation highlights a behavior that few people learn easily – that not reacting and not telling everything you know are sometimes the best courses of action. For many it seems unnatural to stay silent in the face of accusations, particularly those that are glaringly false or exaggerated. Rushing to defend oneself or a company seems much more natural, and in many cases, it is absolutely the right course of action. A quick reaction may dissipate a threat and eliminate it.

Reacting immediately is akin to the fight-or-flight reaction that is programmed into humans from the earliest days. Swift, strong reaction is what kept us alive in many life-threatening situations. In the face of danger, a whole range of physiological reactions kicked in automatically to enable an intense physical response.

Thinking it over

What may work well in situations that are physically threatening may not be at all appropriate in situations that require a more measured response. In nonlife-and-death situations, a calm, cool approach is needed to consider all of the facts and assess the implications of a variety of actions. Most often, a first reaction needs refinement and consideration. There really is something to be said for taking time to think about things. The considered input and perspectives of others can also temper an otherwise knee-jerk reaction and produce a better outcome.

Consciously thinking about the positives of a tempered reaction is a good way to prepare for not immediately responding. Playing out some scenarios and thinking about a range of possible responses helps ingrain the need for broad-based thinking and due consideration. The process of practicing assists in developing a more contemplative approach to issues.

Deliberating about the situation

As well, debriefing after situations have been dealt with to determine the appropriateness of the response and then developing some lessons for future situations is also a good idea. Talking things through with those involved in the situation allows for true learning to take place. Reflection on actions and commitment to future action and response help embed learning from real-life situations.

No two situations are ever going to be the same, and no amount of practice will ever completely prepare a person for the myriad of situations that could be experienced over a business career or life. But thinking about possibilities upfront with time to consider potential responses and actions will make a person feel prepared and not blindsided.

Want to be an entrepreneur? Then learn to hold your tongue. You’ll find it’s not so hard after all.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.