Why Playing Dumb Can Be a Smart Career Strategy

Sep 15, 2014
6 Min Read

Think back to the dozens of conversations you have had over the last 24 hours. Did anyone say anything dumb? Well, yeah, you may think. Now, think about how you responded. Did you jump in to correct the person, laugh, begin arguing or just roll your eyes? If you did any of those things, then you need to learn to react differently, says Geoffrey Tumlin.

Tumlin, author of “Stop Talking, Start Communicating,” says it’s a mistake to call attention to someone’s gaffe since it can hurt your relationship with the other person.

By “playing dumb” and simply pretending you didn’t hear the stupid remark you give the person time to self-correct and let those wrong words drift away and not damage the interaction, he says.

This can be especially important in an age when we seem to be talking more and more but conveying less clear and concise information. The hundreds of emails and texts we send out may not always be flawless, so we should be fair about slipups by others and focus on what they are saying right instead of what they are saying wrong, he says.

While Tumlin advocates “playing dumb,” he says it doesn’t fit every situation and must be used correctly in order to be effective. For example, it can be more beneficial to use your silence with bosses, key clients or important colleagues, “where you have less leverage to alter their behavior,” he says.

In his book, Tumlin outlines rules to help you play dumb more effectively. Among them:

  1. Practice your poker face. You don’t want to call attention to a communication gaffe by smirking or rolling your eyes, because that just makes it embarrassing for the other person.
  2. Don’t be too obvious. If you begin to mimic one of the Three Stooges and act “totally clueless or befuddled,” you will only draw more attention to yourself and possibly “cause the other person to double down on her unproductive words,” Tumlin says. “Dumbness works best when you subtly allow the other person to take advantage of the gap in the conversation to walk back from her ill-advised words.”
  3. Stay neutral. You can fill an awkward silence after someone’s gaffe by saying something like, “I see,” or “I hear you,” but you have to be careful the other person doesn’t see your comments as a tacit approval, he says.  “You always have the right to stay completely silent when you hear something so offensive that you don’t feel comfortable being neutral,” he says, adding that you can always start talking about something else.
  4. Don’t be a know-it-all. It’s easy to whip out your smartphone and consult the Internet to prove someone wrong or you may be tempted to immediately begin arguing. But playing dumb “means letting go of the need to be right about everything,” Tumlin says.
  5. Avoid going overboard. Playing dumb means that you’re willing to let something go so that the relationship stays intact. But don’t do it so often that you are simply dodging real relationship problems, he advises.

“Playing dumb illustrates the power of communication in its absence and is one of the smartest, most altruistic moves you can keep in your conversational tool kit,” he says. “We exert a profound influence on interactions with what we don’t say, type or forward.”

But what if you’re the person who makes the awkward comment? What if you say something that leads to a misunderstanding or you realize you’re out of conversational step with everyone around you?

In that case, Tumlin advises:

  • Patch the hole. Once you’ve dug a hole for yourself and realize a comment is being poorly received, don’t grab the shovel and dig deeper by trying to explain it away. Instead, take responsibility and apologize immediately.
  • Go easy on yourself. In the first 60-seconds of a conversation, there often are awkward comments as you and others try to find the conversational rhythm. So don’t sweat your brief interactions with others, and instead think about overlooking conversational goofs by yourself and others. “The 60-second rule is liberating because it prevents many types of interactions from ever escalating and causing damage,” Tumlin says.

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