The High Cost of Silence

When was the last time you felt prompted to say something to someone and for one reason or another you did not? This could be something large or small. It could be a problem you see in the relationship, or some help you need from this person. Whatever it is, there is enough behind it that you are tempted not to say anything because saying something could, at the minimum, bring tension. Not handled correctly, the tension could lead to an outright conflict, which is why you are tempted not to say anything at all. 

As someone who has struggled with the above scenario, here is what I have learned: There is a tax to silence. 

First, there is a tax to living with this scenario in your head. As I have said countless times before on this blog, until we get whatever is in our head out, either written in a journal, shared with a friend, or addressed with the person we have the issue with, we will not live in peace. This reality is true, but it is not the point of this particular post. 

The point of this post is the second point. The longer we allow the issue to fester, the greater the chances are that we blow. “Blowing up,” as Patrick Lencioni teaches on his “At the Table” podcast, can make us a capital “J” Jerk. Conversely, handling these moments as they come up might make us a jerk, but only the little “j” kind. (I would highly recommend episode 83 of “At the Table” as it shaped my thinking on this post. 

To drive the point of this post home, that the tax on silence can be becoming a big “J” jerk. I am going to rip the band-aid off of my own scars to show how this happens. Here is an example from my past that I am embarrassed about: 

One example that comes to mind is a blow up I had with an old girlfriend. I start here because “blow ups” in dating relationships are depicted frequently on television and relatable to real life. Most have experienced some kind of argument in a dating relationship. 

I was in my early twenties at the time, and had believed that she was the “one.” We had previously dated in high school and had rekindled that relationship after re-meeting at a bar in Chicago. It had all the makings, but, it just was not meant to be. I am sure she would agree in retrospect, but there were a lot of little differences in our personalities that we did not address. For one reason or another we never got around to addressing them either. That is, until one night, with the aid of a couple of adult beverages, I blew. It was a relatively short eruption, but I was harsh. A couple weeks later we were through and the occurrence was not the best look for me. I learned that I should have had several conversations prior to that eruption. That would have been the right thing to do. 

As the years have gone by, I notice the tax of silence showing up just about everywhere, but especially in the workplace. I write blogs about leadership, but that does not mean I don’t succumb to the tax of silence here. I may not blow up at people like I did in my early twenties, but I can do something that is perhaps even worse: make passive aggressive sarcastic comments. 

Here are some examples: 

-A project is late all the time, so instead of challenging why it is late, I make a snarky comment that shows my displeasure, but does not address the problem. Worse, I do this publicly, rather than privately.  

-A person comes in late all the time, so I poke fun at their tardiness rather than talking with them directly. 

-I walk the production floor and find part containment and cleanliness that is not up to par. Rather than having one-on-one conversations, I default to sarcasm to others about how bad things look.  

None of these behaviors addresses the real problem. In fact, all increase the danger of the tax of silence coming due for payment. 

As I wrap up, I hope you get the point that you are better off addressing issues in the moment. It is the kind, even loving, thing to do. We are tempted not to do it out of protection of our self. Ironically, addressing issues in the moment is both the uncomfortable thing to do and the most protective thing to do for YOURSELF and others. 

The tax paid to conversation is less than the tax paid to silence. In fact, there is often no tax at all.  

I am nudging myself in the direction of having more conversations. I say nudging because it is hard. The easy thing to do these days is to avoid having difficult conversations and default to passive aggressive behavior, like venting on social media. 

Direct conversations, however, take intention and effort. We must persist in doing this kind of work. So, let’s be the kind of people that love others and ourselves, enough to talk about issues as they come up.