Shut Your Mouth


Yesterday a friend of mine wrote a piece about what it’s like to be single on Valentine’s day and to hear stories about “God’s plan” for her life from married folks. It was a great post and addressed beautifully the whole problem of treating our lives like they’re on some kind of path that has a happy end result (apparently marriage, in this case). It was thoughtful, well-written, and clear.

One of the earliest comments just completely ignored all of that and gave basically the same advice that Emily was addressing in her post, while also calling her bitter.

I shook my head, partly because it was kind of obnoxious, but mostly because this seems to be pretty par for the course. People talk while other people just wait for their turn to talk. What the first person has to say is of little importance – it is just an opportunity to collect thoughts about the topic. What is said is not nearly as crucial as just saying it.

Just because someone speaks after the first person, it doesn’t automatically make that a response.

I’m aware of the old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

But sometimes we aren’t going to say something nice. We’re going to disagree and we might even disagree with vehemence. We can do this without cruelty, but I’m also aware that sometimes these won’t be conversations that could be classified as nice.

This is okay. It can be good, even. A lively debate where people are hashing out differing opinions can be beneficial, not just for the participants, but for those who are listening or reading along. I’ve seen conversations that have been civil but heated get shut down and it’s always disappointing to me because I think we miss a chance to stretch our worldviews in those instances.

What is frustrating is when what is happening is not actually a conversation.

Instead of worrying about being nice in our responses, I would like to see us focus more on responding to what is being said. My statement would be something more along the lines of, “If you can’t listen to what the person is saying, shut your mouth.” It’s not nearly as catchy, but I think it sums up a lot of our communication problems a bit more succinctly.

The commenter on Emily’s post wasn’t responding to what she wrote, they were simply responding to every person who has disagreed with their view on the issue about God’s sovereignty. Any salient points that they may have had got lost because the comment was so reactionary that it stopped the conversation cold.

As the world shrinks, we are exposed to more viewpoints than at any other time, and this means that we have more opportunities for conversations. We can choose “nice” and just shut them down at the first hint of disagreement. We can just use them as a space to share our opinions regardless of what the others involved have to say about it.

Or we can use them as an opportunity to listen and learn and interact with people who have different thoughts than we do about various topics. Opening our mouths and sharing our views can be helpful, but only if we shut our mouths and open our ears first.

  • Karen Haring


    I love your new “saying,” and I’m going to try to memorize it! I have been learning this in new ways over the last year or two. If I can’t listen to what the person is saying, I should shut my mouth!! And sometimes, even after I DO listen to what the person is saying, I should keep my mouth shut. It’s about respect!

    • Alise Wright

      Yup. Sometimes things don’t need a response. I’m getting better at recognizing that, though I tend to respond. I do hope, however, that I’m improving at actually responding to what people say, rather than what I heard. Not perfectly, but much better. It’s a process!

  • Jessica

    Yup. In fact, my husband just suggested that we start a new series on the blog where we ask big questions, and then cut off the comment section, just so people have to reflect on the question and not parrot their party answer.

    • Alise Wright

      Oh, I love that idea! Sometimes we need to THINK about stuff, rather than just respond. I like it.

  • Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    Love this. Love. Love. Listening is a long lost, unpopular tool but so necessary in this shrinking environment of viewpoints. These last few weeks online have made we wonder if I even want to throw in my .2 cents….it’s been scary to see so many people “jumped,” at least that’s what we called it back in the hood when someone came at you with a 2 by 4 and took you by surprise…not a whole lotta listening conversations happening there either! So anyway, I feel you! It’s been a hot mess out here & I hope more listening and thoughtful responses ensue…

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    The most comforting and loving people in my life are the good listeners.

  • Alex Marshall

    Great post! Much needed skill in the world of endless arguments on social media: learning to hear what others are actually saying, not just what we think they are saying.

  • Dian Reid, CPCC

    I love this post. Listening is such a key factor in conversations that so many of us don’t practice often enough. I find that really listening often has us asking more questions rather than shooting off responses. And what facilitates conversation better than questions?? I’m also a believer in being authentic over being nice, and agree that you don’t have to be mean in order to get your point across. Thanks for sharing this … I’ll be practicing my listening skills more consciously today =)

  • Abby Norman

    “If you can’t listen to what the person is saying, shut your mouth” Hi, I am going to need a gigantic poster that says exactly this for my High School English classroom. Send it to my house. K? Thanks. Also, my favorite comm professor used to have us right down answers to big questions, then when it was time to talk about it she would continually remind us that we had already thought about ourselves, that is why it was written down, so it was time to think about what the other people were saying. It was weird how hard it was to do that.

  • Jim Fisher

    I just finished “The Idolatry of God” by Peter Rollins. In there he talks about “literalistic listening”. Here’s a quote that hints at the gist of it: For me it means divorcing ourselves from our love of certainty and wedding ourselves to empathy for (and Love of) the “other” instead. Great minds think alike, Alise!

    “Instead of approaching those with different beliefs and practices from a position of strength— in which we simply engage in the act of agreement or disagreement (which means comparing the other in relation to our own pre-established horizon)— literalistic listening asks us to approach from a position of weakness. It means that we don’t simply look at the other through our own eyes, but we attempt to look at ourselves through the eyes of the other.”

    Rollins, Peter (2013-01-01). The Idolatry of God (p. 70). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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