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7 Smart Ways to (Literally) Play Dumb... and Save Almost Any Relationship

"Playing dumb" can sound like it might be stupid. But it's the single best way to rescue an uncomfortable conversation.

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It happens all too often. You're in a meeting with a client, a potential client, or a would-be investor, and he or she says something so inappropriate, so out of line, so breathtakingly ill informed, that you have to make a really special effort not to fall off your chair. 

But what happens next? Your choices are limited. You don't want to blurt out something that will destroy the relationship. You don't want to sound lame or accommodating. You know the perfect comeback will pop into your head as soon as you leave the building.

There is another option, says communications consultant Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. "The hallmark between a decent communicator and a great communicator [is] the ability to not say what’s on your mind. What we’re trying to do in any interaction that goes wrong is prevent fatal damage to the relationship."

Instead of straining for the perfect riposte, says Tumlin, start by keeping your mouth shut. That'll give you the space to practice what he calls conversational containment--carefully thinking about what you want say, and limiting back-and-forth dialogue to stop trouble from escalating. 

Here are seven smart ways to play dumb:

1. Put on your best poker face

When an I-can’t-believe-she-just-said-that moment happens, your first instinct is probably to react physically: You might roll your eyes, sigh, raise your eyebrows, or even throw your hands in the air. None of that will help. If you’re serious about defusing the episode rather than escalating it, you’ll need to pretend that you’re competing in the World Series of Poker.

2. Be subtle

Making an effort not to react to an inappropriate statement is considerate, but don’t take the act too far. Your "performance" needs to be believable, so don't even think about zipping your lips in pantomine. 

"Be inconspicuous," Tumlin says. "If you oversell your dumbness, you may even cause the other person to double down on his unproductive words, repeating them in an attempt to help you understand." You're trying to give the other person a chance to back away form his or her clueless comment.

3. Muzzle your inner know-it-all

It’s human nature to want to be right. However, the urge to prove another person wrong can get you into hot water and torpedo any chance of a friendly conversation. Correcting another person can spark arguments, damage the way he or she perceives you, and harm the underlying relationship. "Unless something crucial hangs in the balance," says Tumlin, "if you hear someone misquote a statistic, mangle a story, or make a logical error, don’t whip out your smartphone and start searching the Internet to prove her wrong."

4. Don’t expect it to be easy

Playing dumb sounds simple: Just don’t react. But it can be difficult to override your instincts. "As conversations pick up a rhythm, or as our inbox stacks up, we feel increasing pressure to respond when it's 'our turn,'" says Tumlin. "Playing dumb requires us to resist the urge to reply."



5. Don’t play dumb too often

There’s a line between playing dumb for relational harmony and playing dumb because you are in denial about a clear and present problem. If you find yourself playing dumb frequently, it may be a sign of a larger issue that needs to be addressed.

6. Don’t fan the flames

It’s best when your silence and intentional gaps provide enough room for someone to self-correct. You can play dumb and still talk, as long as you don’t add anything to the conversation that redirects attention back to the offending words. If you feel like you need to say something after your conversational partner says something stupid, use neutral continuers like" um-hum," "I see," "Okay," or "I hear you."



7. Pick and choose your targets

Build a mental list of people with whom you might need to make a special effort to play dumb, so that when you interact with them you can remind yourself beforehand to keep your reactions on a leash. Tumlin says: "If a key client tends to make off-color jokes after a couple of happy-hour cocktails, start inviting him to breakfast instead. Or if Aunt Sarah can’t resist criticizing your housekeeping every time she comes over, try to visit at her home instead."

 

A version of this story appeared in the email newsletter and web site One Thing New.

Last updated: Mar 4, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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