A perceptive and mean-spirited person might describe me as a cross between a pathological helper and a know-it-all. (A nicer person would call me “empathetic and well informed.”) If I see someone with a problem, it takes a lot of work for me to refrain from telling them how to fix it, or jumping in and fixing it myself.
One of the hardest life lessons I’ve learned is how NOT to do this. I call this lesson The Art of Shutting Up.
This weekend’s mild temperatures meant that the field at Masters N’ Hounds where Milo and I usually play was muddy. The first time he gleefully skidded out in the mud, I said, “Jiminy Cricket, aren’t you a mess.” (I didn’t use those exact words.)
But, it was a gorgeous day, and Milo needed a bath anyway, so I decided to let him enjoy the mud, and that we’d stop by the dog wash at PetValu on our way home. Problem solved.
Years earlier, at a different park, Milo already found mud irresistable.
Skip ahead to PetValu where Milo, enjoying handfuls of treats and praise from the employees who were already his friends, gets started on a gentle shampoo.
All was well until another muddy dog, a lab, and its two people moved into the dog wash station beside us. It quickly became apparent that all three of them needed help.
- The dog didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
- It was afraid (ears back, tail between its legs, head down).
- It wouldn’t get into the tub, so its people picked him up, and when he started to squirm, they dropped him.
- When they finally got him into the tub and wet him down, they started to bicker about the right way to wash him.
- He took advantage of their fight and jumped out of the tub, trotting over to say “Hi” to Milo and me.
- When I asked them to remove their dog, they gave me death stares. (I didn’t even say “Jiminy Cricket,” just “please remove your dog.”)
The minute they walked in it was clear that the situation was not ideal so I put Milo’s bath into super-speedy mode. Poor Milo only got the most cursory blowout before I hustled him out of the store and into the truck.
As I was leaving, I thought to myself that I could teach those folks a lot about how to bathe a dog. I could tell them that they should have taught their dog to like baths before it was an emergency that it get one and that they should use lots of rewards and take baby steps.
Instead of explaining to these strangers what they should have done, or offering to help, I practiced the art of shutting up. For me, the art of shutting up involves recognizing when speaking is not going to do any good or isn’t going to make the world a better place.
Here are some situations where I try to practice the art of shutting up:
1) When the people I’m talking to aren’t in a position to hear me or when I’m not in a state of mind to be clear and kind
Those people struggling to bathe their dog were obviously stressed out, and so was I. I would have had a hard time being kind and they would have had a hard time learning anything.
2) When speaking up is contrary to other important goals and commitments
At that dog wash, my primary responsibility was to take care of Milo. Stressed out dogs do weird things, and I didn’t want Milo around that poor stressed out pup and its people. Also, my goal that day was to spend some fun and relaxing time with Milo, not to teach strangers about dog husbandry.
3) When I lack knowledge of the context of the situation
It is entirely possible that those people already knew everything that I could have told them, and that they were just having a terrible day. How was I to know?
The week before a squirrel was teasing Milo. It got Milo all jazzed up and he gave a mighty tug on his leash in a futile attempt to catch it. A bystander suggested that if Milo pulls like that all the time, I should use a head halter on him. I politely thanked her for the advice in a tone of voice that clearly suggested that she put a sock in it. She had no context for her comment. She didn’t know me or Milo, and she didn’t know that he rarely pulls like that. In fact, we do use a halter sometimes, but this was not one of those times. This lady could have made the situation better by saying nothing at all.
Milo’s response to a stranger suggesting he wear a halter.
Sometimes the art of being well spoken is about knowing when not to speak.