7 times to just stop talking

The Princess Bride, and the battle of wits, and 6 other times you probably should just say nothing. Also 7 other things worth your time

OK, so the cast of The Princess Bride got together recently for virtual table read as a political fundraiser.

The movie is a cult classic among people my age, but I have to be honest, I was never all that into it. And yet, I’d like to start today by talking about one scene in particular.

It’s when the hero challenges the villain to a battle of wits involving wine goblets and poison, and the villain proceeds to — wait, even better, I’ll just include part of the screenplay:

The villain—Vizzini—goes through an arrogant, elaborate and self-defeating monologue, trying to discern which goblet has the poison. The Man in Black hardly says anything.

Then, Vizzini makes his choice, drinks, and predictably—drops dead. (Spoiler alert on a 33-year-old movie: Both goblets had the poison, and the hero reveals that he’s spent the last several years building an immunity. Full scene here, if you’re a fan and I’ve suddenly got you thinking about this.)

You know why I like this scene? Because I use it to illustrate one of my 7 Times You’re Better Off Saying Nothing At All™. Here’s my list:

1. When the person you’re debating starts negotiating against himself or herself

This is our Vizzini/Man in Black example. But, it doesn’t have to involve death. It can be when the person on the other side says something like:

  • “Could you reduce the price? You probably can’t…”

  • “Feel free to say no, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to go out with me, but…”

  • “I know you’re probably not in a position to give me a raise right now, and I hate asking, but…”

See? Assuming you don’t want to reduce price, go on the date, or give the raise, you just have to avoid saying anything. Let them finish their sentences, and talk themselves out of a deal before you even reply.

2. When the other side misunderstands (and you don't have a duty to correct).

A lawyer friend of mine was once working on selling her client’s company—and she was surprised at how smoothly everything was going. Was she missing something?

No, she realized, the problem was on the other side of the table, where some whiz-kid MBA on their team had made a math error — thus overestimating how big the market might become if everything went right.

My friend could barely keep a straight face — but she realized that she had two duties: (a) represent her client zealously, and (b) don’t misrepresent any facts. So, she kept her mouth shut.

The moral is that you don't always have an obligation to correct someone else's mistakes.

3. When you start a speech.

If you don’t have another opening for a speech in mind, start with a long, uncomfortable pause. Wait long enough to put the audience ill at ease.

That way, they’ll worry that you've lost your notes, or you're having a panic attack. And, when you start talking, you'll have at least a few of them on your side—happy that you haven't made them witness an embarrassing meltdown.

4. When you don't have any idea what you're talking about.

Silence is awkward. People often rush to fill it. I used to use this tendency to my advantage when I was a trial attorney taking depositions in civil cases.

Sometimes, I'd ask a witness an open-ended question, and even though the his tone of voice suggested he'd finished his answer, I'd just keep quiet.

Sometimes, the witness would keep going and dig himself a bigger hole.

You never have to fill a silence, especially when you don't have anything useful to fill it with. (In those cases, it's true: Everything you say may well in fact be used against you.)

5. When you need someone else to get the credit.

As President Harry S. Truman once said, you can accomplish just about anything if you don't care who gets the credit. Sometimes, that means staying quiet just long enough for someone else to think of your solution and propose it as his or her own.

6. When you want someone else to grow.

This is a similar point to when you want someone else to get the credit for a good idea. If you have a second grader in your family, chances are you could do her homework for her without much effort. But what would be the point? You want her to learn and grow, which means she has to be the one to come to the conclusions on her own.

The same thing is true in many other circumstances. Instead of leaping forward to answer a thoughtful question that you know the answer to, sometimes it makes sense to hold back and let others figure it out.

7. When you are clearly boring people.

I enjoy telling stories. My wife has pointed out how often I tell total strangers the story of how she and I met and got together.

You see, we'd gone to college together and dated for a while, but then we broke up for almost two decades...

OK, I'll hold off on it for now. Most of us know when we're holding court for too long. In that case, cut it short, wrap things up, and stop talking.

I’ll leave it to your imagination whether there’s anything else going on in the world right now besides The Princess Bride that might have lead me to think about times when people ought to just be quiet.

If you’ve got other situational suggestions, feel free to drop them in the comments.

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7 other things worth your time

Photo: Just a screen grab from Youtube. I talked about some of this in a different context on Inc.com a while back. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. And now, you can also get it by text at (718) 866-1753.

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