A framework for keeping your mouth shut
We love our opinions. We really do. We’re so proud of them, and we’re so eager to share them with anyone who’ll listen, and many who won’t.
And yet, there’s the adage: “Opinions are like assholes: everyone has one, and no one wants to see yours.”
This doesn’t do opinions justice. Some opinions have literally changed the world. The real issue is that not all opinions are created equal. While my opinions haven’t changed the world, some have had a positive impact, both on myself, and others, across the years.
But most of them have not.
To build on the distasteful metaphor†, most were just farts in the wind: annoyingly evident for a brief period, and then thankfully gone.
How do we know which opinions matter?
While it doesn’t cover all situations, I’ve been thinking of a framework to help me cull some of my more annoying emissions: what if I wasn’t around to express it? Would it matter? Would anything have turned out differently? If not, then perhaps I shouldn’t waste my time, and that of others. Better to let the air remain clear.
If I missed the meeting, would my unexpressed opinions have made a difference?
If I ignored the email, would my unsent response have done anything?
If I didn’t hear the question, would my unspoken answer have had an impact?
If the answer to any of those, and many similar situations, is “no”, then once again: what’s the point? Why bother?
I’m not saying don’t have opinions. I certainly have ‘em. Lots of ‘em, in fact. But regardless of how important you might feel your opinion is, if expressing it would be pointless, or worse, detrimental to the conversation, is there any reason to share it? Perhaps save it in a journal or share it with a much more limited audience for whom it would be meaningful, but otherwise … maybe keep your counsel to yourself.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough.
Besides being so proud of our opinion, we tend to have an over-inflated sense of importance. For those questions above, we’re all much more likely to answer “yes”, that our opinion will, of course, make a difference, be appreciated, and have an impact. Particularly in the face of contrary opinions, we’re frequently convinced we can change minds if they could only hear what we have to say.
If the last few years of politics and pandemic have taught us anything, it’s just how wrong that line of thinking is. Expressing an opinion rarely changes anything, particularly for those contentious issues for which we feel so strongly, and for which we feel our opinions are so critical.
Regardless of what you think of your own opinions, and the impact you expect they’ll have, it’s not uncommon to simply be wrong.
Have opinions. Express them when you truly believe doing so will make a positive difference. But be realistic about whether that’s likely.
When in doubt:
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt
– Attribution unclear
†: Sorry, but sometimes the metaphor is simply too apt.