Zip It or Quip It: Talking After an Incident

March 10, 2014
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

To speak or not to speak after a conflict: That is the question I get quite often at training programs. Is it better to be quiet and be thought a fool or to speak and remove all doubt?

There are risks and benefits to opening up immediately after a conflict with the person you had the issue with—whether it be your spouse, a friend, or a coworker. There are also advantages and disadvantages to remaining silent and not engaging. I'll explore the plusses and minuses and allow you to make your own decision.

Even though I don't always follow my own advice, I am nearly always in the camp of talking it out after a crisis has occurred.

The benefits are many. One is that you can usually get the issue resolved quicker. Sometimes it was simply a misunderstanding or simple miscommunication that got in the way. Why ignore each other for a week over such a trivial matter?

Another advantage to getting immediate closure to situations is that you can then move on to other, perhaps more important, matters. People have a tendency to let the unresolved issue get in the way of progress.

Yet another benefit is that you can prevent the festering problem from creating more precarious issues. Misery loves company, or so they say.

On the other hand, while you may want to promptly talk it out, the other person may not be ready, and rushing the process may create more hazards. Speaking too quickly after a disagreement may prolong the original argument. The other person may also think that you’re being insincere, as how can you be so ready to chat when they’re still fuming?

What about the don't-talk-for-a-while crowd? What are some advantages they enjoy?

Letting things de-escalate for a good long time can be, in and of itself, very cathartic. Nothing like a good purge to let yourself come around to more rational thinking.

While misery may love company, it’s also said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe a prolonged disengagement is just what the doctor ordered.

Isolating ourselves with silence can allow personal assessment, inner examination, and reflection to take place. This can have value beyond the immediate concern.

However, too long a silent separation can be fatal to the relationship. My father once told me that grudges are toxic and should be avoided at all costs.

A prolonged disengagement can even breed feelings of disenchantment and paranoia. It can also allow others to fill in the gaps with their own biases and opinions, which can muddy the waters.

So, to speak or not to speak is definitely the question. Haste should not rule the day, but do not linger too long. Communicating after a disagreement or crisis is an opportunity and can be relationship defining. Remember to be especially attuned to the individual in that moment.

Special thanks to my colleague Nancy Little for her insight.

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