Never Pass Up an Opportunity to Shut Up

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used this phrase in his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. In his case, he was mainly referring to his dealings with Congress and the press, but it’s excellent advice for anyone interested in preserving their credibility, relationships and personal effectiveness.

I’ve had the taste of my foot in my mouth often enough to know that it’s hard to do when the lips are pressed tightly together. While it may be obvious, it’s easy miss chances to shut up when we’re fired by passion for our position or our product, or even when we’re trying to help someone else. Common opportunities to shut up include:

Coaching others. We see someone making a mistake we’ve made before… “You ought to…”

Talking past the close. “Put that pen down. I still have 13 slides.”

Perfectionism. Correcting someone else’s mistake when it’s not germane to your aims. “Did the Germans bomb Pearl Harbor?…Forget it, he’s on a roll.”

Story-topping.  “I think that’s great that your kid got into County Community College. I was so proud when my son got into Harvard.”

When you’re angry. (and on national TV):


Information asymmetry. When you realize you’ve told the other party all about your life, and don’t know a thing about them.

I thought of a few others, but this is probably a good opportunity to stop.

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