I’d like to know if you agree with how I handled a certain situation at work last week. I am a mid-level manager in a large insurance company and one of my coworkers observed some communications between my boss and me and came up to me afterward and said, “Sydney really is difficult!”, with a very supportive facial expression and showing me a good deal of sympathy. I decided that the best response was to say nothing. My friend that I’ve worked with for years had made a disparaging remark about my boss to me and I felt like it was very important to avoid agreeing or making any negative statements about my (yes, very difficult) boss that could be repeated or distorted and then used against me in some way down the road.
In retrospect, I feel I made the right choice. I’m a positive person and am respectful of the hierarchy that exists in the workplace. I don’t like complaining and want to be sure I’m seen as a strong contributor and positive team player. What do you think of my choice to say nothing at all? I really don’t like the thought of getting bitten down the road because of some stupid off the cuff remark I made.
What a great example you presented. First of all, I’d like to praise you most of all for your great attitude and your goal to avoid being seen as a negative force in your workplace. Good for you! It’s hard to refrain from going down the road of taking advantage of an easy opportunity to throw a dagger at your difficult boss, especially with a coworker you’ve known and worked with for a long time who is a friend.
I agree strongly that there are many times when silence is a very good choice following certain types of communications. The motivation behind your silence is smart and legitimate. Your choice to say nothing was based on clear goals and values that are important to you. I would like to point out some alternative interpretations of silence that you may not have considered: Sometimes when a person is silent, it might be seen as agreement or acquiescence. This means that rather than being seen as a non participant in negativity, you could have been perceived as being in complete agreement with the remark your friend made. It’s also possible that your facial expression and eye contact conveyed something different from your silence.
Rather than recommend one best way to handle this type of situation which might include or exclude silence as the optimum way to respond, I’d prefer to give you a variety of responses for a coworker – that are in line with the goals and values you described – to choose from, including silence, that you could use in various versions of the circumstance you described:
“I appreciate your being supportive. Sydney keeps me on my toes all the time and it really has elevated my attention to detail and my delivery of excellence.”
“It’s always good to feel that you have my back. I believe in accepting and seeing people, particularly bosses, as they are, without seeing them as either difficult or easy. My approach makes working with Sydney smooth and productive and keeps me on an even keel at work."
“Thanks for reaching out to me. I like to think of my boss from a different perspective. I know what demands are coming down on Sydney from the top so I just keep that in my mind when the demands on me from Sydney are high."
And there are many other types of responses that might work well. It would be good for you to think through these options and create the version that would work well for you so you can be ready for your future.
Here is a related excerpt from SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success:
Sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all. In our communications we often dig ourselves a hole and then can’t get out of it. Frequently, we feel it’s necessary to respond, defend, disclaim, explain, or even, attack when silence would be the ideal choice.
Acknowledging through facial expression, eye contact and head nodding may be the ideal communication in many situations. You can convey that you’re listening, you’re sincere and you’re giving attention, without saying a word.
It’s critical to remember that a look of annoyance or frustration will convey more than words; if silence is the desired communication, your face must be silent as well.
The less comfortable you are with silence, the more likely it will be that you will rush in to participate when non-participation would be the best choice possible. This is a silence of self-benefit, different from acquiescence or tail-between-the-legs silence. This is a silence of active listening and attentive acknowledgement.
Until next time,