A friend of mine was on a bus that would take him from a football stadium to the parking lot, and it couldn’t get him back to his car soon enough. Not only had his team lost to an underdog opponent, but the air in the otherwise quiet bus was filled by a solitary and painfully annoying voice that was impossible to tune out.
While everyone else commiserated in silence, a middle-aged fan explained exactly what had gone wrong for the home team, why the offensive coordinator should be fired, what was good and bad about previous coaches and quarterbacks, and the details of what must be done to fix the ailing football program.
We live in a time when everyone feels empowered to share their opinions, no matter the topic and no matter their qualifications. And there’s no shortage of ways to share — in bars or on buses, around the family dinner table, in the conference rooms at work, or on your favorite social media platform.
Opinions can be good things, of course, but what’s too often missing is a filter that provides us with discretion over what we say, when we say it, how we say it, and to whom it is said.
George Washington, a leader known for his discretion, offered some advice on this topic more than 200 years ago that remains as relevant as ever.
“Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion,” he told his adopted grandson, “it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”
And how do we know when there is an “occasion” for expressing our opinion?
Well, I happen to have an opinion on that.
First, take some time to listen.
Washington surrounded himself with brilliant leaders and he let them have their say. Then he could ask questions and, when ready, offer an informed opinion or make an informed decision. William Shakespeare noted that, “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.” So it’s worth it to fill your mind with useful information before making any noise.
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Next, know your audience.
You might be an expert on a topic but find yourself in the company of no one who will find it interesting or relevant. Even if the fan on the bus was correct in her opinions, it’s safe to assume that she wasn’t preaching to a receptive audience. Part of this involves timing, because sharing a valid opinion at the wrong time can turn an otherwise receptive audience into a group that’s indifferent or even antagonistic toward your message.
Finally, consider the consequences.
Opinions typically create a response, and it’s worth it to think through the responses you will get before offering your opinion. My friend considered offering his counter-opinions on the bus ride but decided against anything that would encourage the other fan to continue talking. On the other hand, there are times when leaders are compelled to make a verbal stand or they risk doing more harm than good with their silence. As Albert Einstein said, “I have expressed an opinion on public issues whenever they appeared to me so bad and unfortunate that silence would have made me feel guilty of complicity.”
We live in a time of polarized opinions — a time when many people believe themselves to be right and all who disagree to be wrong and when being heard is more valued than hearing others. This, as it turns out, isn’t so different from Washington’s time, when dozens of printed publications shared the anonymous opinions and misinformation of critics. Then as now, the disciplines of discretion can help ensure that what we say has influence, even when — perhaps especially when — we say nothing at all.