Mastering The Art of Shutting Up

Say no more!

Face it. When it comes to marital conflict, most of us don’t know when to hush up.

If you’re anything like me, it’s hard… no, let’s be honest… it’s downright impossible to resist throwing in that one last clever comeback, that sigh, that snarky retort— even though it’s guaranteed to get the two of you all fired-up. And not in a good way.

Most of the time it seems that nothing can keep us from jumping onto the old hamster wheel and taking a run. Not even our wisest, sanest voice asking us if the thing we’re fighting about is actually worth it, suggesting we drop it, begging us to, just this once, zip our lips.

For some reason, we can’t. Or, we won’t.

Worse still — we know that continuing to engage is a terrible move. We know that our quick little comment or our long-winded diatribe will only add fuel to the fire, that it may set off an explosion, that it may have dire consequences. We know we should be quiet, yet we keep talking anyway.

Before you march out and buy a big roll of duct tape or take a lifelong vow of silence, consider this: like most things in life, learning to shut up is a matter of practice.

Shutting up instead of shouting out is a skill, more easily mastered once we recognize what we have working against us.

Why your brain is not your best friend.

For all the great things your brain does for you, there are a few things it doesn’t do very well. One of them is being able to maintain perspective under pressure.

Sometimes our hyper-vigilant brain can’t tell the difference between an imagined threat and a real one, which means that sometimes it has the same biochemical response to a sigh or an eye-roll or a provocative comment as it does when we’re truly in danger.

Most of us get pretty wrought up when we’re in conflict. As pressure mounts, our heart speeds up and our blood oxygen level goes down.

Once your heart rate climbs to 100 beats per minute and your blood oxygen level drops even a few percentage points below normal, you’re simply too flooded to think straight.

iStock_000011070144XSmallQuieting down, even if it means leaving the room until you’ve regained your composure, is your best move.

What Sir Isaac Newton Can Teach Us.

Remember learning in physics that an object in motion tends to stay in motion? Once a conflict gets going it’s likely to keep going until one of you stops it.

It takes strength to stop a conflict when it’s going full steam —  just as it takes strength to counteract the urge to toss in one more zinger or to resist taking your partner’s bait.

For me, there’s a physical aspect to this, a feeling of needing to literally hold myself back as if pulling in the reins or planting my feet. Once I am still, it’s not all that hard to hold my tongue.

More is not better.

In graduate school I had a teacher who used this phrase: say it once, say it well when talking about sharing our observations with clients. Too bad he didn’t suggest I apply the same principle to handling heated issues in my marriage. Or, disciplining my children, for that matter.

Most of us say it once and if that doesn’t work, we say it again. If that doesn’t work, we say it again, only louder and more forcefully, thinking this time my partner will FINALLY get what I’m saying.

Try this instead: Say it once.

If that doesn’t move things forward, a) your partner is in disagreement and may not be saying so, b) she’s too caught up in her own stuff to hear you— soft, loud, or otherwise, c) you haven’t been clear. Rather than repeat yourself, you may need to make your point in an new way.

Silence is not the same thing as agreement.

Being quiet does not mean you agree with what your partner is saying, though many of us act as if this is true. I’m not suggesting that people be silent about issues of social injustice. I’m suggesting that your partner’s every word does not warrant a response.

Knowing what to respond to and what to let pass is not simple. Debating whether you moved the keys on Friday or Thursday, whether it was your “tone” that started the ruckus, whether the children are unruly because of your genetics is a waste of time.

Whether you comment or not, remember that the things your partner says don’t become written in stone just because you didn’t dispute them.

shhhhThe folly of the last word.

Maybe it’s a throwback from childhood. Maybe it’s in our animal nature to mark our territory. Wherever it came from, it’s thoroughly ridiculous to think that the one who has the last word is the victor.

When I’ve gotten caught up in needing to have the last word, I’m pretty sure it means that I’ve lost.

What if silence makes me appear weak?

Hmmm. How strong are you when you’re having a passionate argument about the best way to cut onions? Next time you’re going around and around some point hardly worth arguing about, ask yourself if you’re really, truly coming from strength.

It takes courage to know when to shut up. Diplomats are trained in the art of knowing when to be silent. Quite often, restraint is a sign of power.

In case you think that I’m saying silence is more valuable than speaking, I’m not. Sometimes words are the very thing that will transform a problem, heal an injury, answer a question that needs to be answered.

Sometimes it’s crucial that we speak up. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

If you’re asking the question, “Don’t I have a right to be heard?” the answer is yes.

But you also have a right to remain silent and sometimes that’s the wise and powerful thing to do.

Forget everything I just said about being quiet and please leave a comment!


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30 thoughts on “Mastering The Art of Shutting Up

  1. Winifred, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again- terrific post! And one that I will definitely keep in mind the next time I find things heating up in my own relationship. Thanks!


  2. YES!! A great post. For women/wives like myself, who grew up in a subculture in which repressed women/wives was the norm, “shutting up” can often sound horrible to me, because it reminds me of the dozens of women I’ve known who shut up to AVOID conflict, not to refine it, or redirect it. But I’m moving away from that, thanks to a great husband and to good advice like this. Thanks.


  3. I like this AND I have a question. Even when we are just having a pleasant conversation I tend to remain silent unless I have some brilliant further embroidering to add to the conversation. My wife is not sure if I have heard her. So let’s say we were to have a charged argument and I didn’t show that I had heard the last volley. What about a neutral, “Let me think about that” or a neutral “I hear you”. How can you acknowledge without inflaming?


    • “Let me think about it” isn’t inflammatory. Nodding isn’t either.
      Silence can be interpreted many ways.
      Important to start with your intention.
      I can be silent and leaking irritation. I can be silent and staying out of the gale force winds of my partner’s upset.
      Guaranteed trouble: toss in a defensive reply, a jab, a sarcastic remark, a scowl. (Scowls/eye-rolls etc. are hardly silent, by the way!)
      Hope this helps.

      Thanks for commenting.


    • You raise an important point here. Silence has many forms and effects and we choose it for a variety of reasons.

      For example, there’s the “I know chiming-in will not lead to a productive conversation” silence, and the “I am so weary I want to give up, I feel hopeless, I need to protect myself from further hurt” silence.

      There is a time and place for both just as there is a time and place for speaking up.

      My intent here is to address being quiet when it contributes to better communication – a bit of a paradox.

      I appreciate your comment.


      • I actually understood that, but I wanted to put in another silence.

        I worked Psych most of my career, Director of Drug and alcohol program, where I ran groups, Put together content of groups to be run and all the rest of the not so interest things like writing Policies and procedures, etc.

        I also worked with adolescence, groups, individuals, etc.

        I love what you are doing here.


  4. Winifred,
    Your article has some great reminders that can benefit many of us. I admire the sensitive way you describe some of our less attractive human traits — it makes it a lot easier to work on them coming from a place of love.


  5. Hi Winifred,

    An interesting post – with some excellent advice. As you’ve said in response to some previous comments, though, silence can mean all sorts of different things – it can constitute a kind of passive aggression, which can be even harder to deal with than harsh spoken words. Whether we speak or remain silent, it’s the nature, meaning and quality of the underlying communication that really matters. Our non-verbals always say much more than the words that escape from our mouths.


  6. I must admit that I have been told, “you always need to have the last word”. I hope I have changed a little, learned a little. But now my effort in arguments will be to have the next to the last word, then shut my mouth. Hard to do. Practical advice. Thanks


  7. Another thought. My late wife needed 24 hours to absorb and process controversy. At first her silence was very anxiety provoking for me, but later I learned to understand that it was necessary to wait.


  8. Wow. I love what you write and how you are saying it. It can also be quite difficult for couples to know when shutting up is skillful so arguments don’t recycle and when not saying something is related to a sense of hopelessness, giving up, avoidance or depression. And for those who were always shut up when they were young, having the last word is an act of freedom, even if it doesn’t work so well with a partner!


    • Yes, there’s a big difference between shutting up as a move made from strength and what might be better called shutting down or shutting off.

      Your phrase – last word as an act of freedom – makes sense. I think we often fight battles as adults hoping to have a better outcome than we had as children. Eventually, we have to figure out how our adult self can fare best.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  9. Pingback: Way to go, Winifred!! | The Mirror

  10. Pingback: Marriage and the Fine Art of Shutting Up

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