The Power of Shutting Up

By Dan Coulter

Your brain is an amazing organ. It can be your best friend. But it can also be dead wrong about some things.

For example, if you have Asperger Syndrome, your brain may absorb facts that interest you like a berserk vacuum cleaner. But it may also tell you that you have to share those facts with anyone you encounter.

It seems obvious to your brain. You have interesting information. If you share it, others will admire you for your knowledge. The more you share, the more impressed they should be. Some brains are locked into this thinking and can make you feel compelled do an information dump whenever you encounter people.

But if your brain is telling you that, it's like a person who only sees part of the information on a map. Let's say you open a map and see a hiking path that makes a big curve to reach an amazing waterfall. It's a three mile walk. But you notice that you can hike in a straight line off the path and walk only a mile to reach it. You take off, only to run into a dense forest that's hard to push through, and then an impassable swamp. You turn back, tired and scratched and smelling like swamp, and never get to the waterfall. The forest and the swamp were shown on the map, but they didn't register on your brain.

Holding a successful conversation requires reading details on a kind of social interaction mental map. It may look like the most direct route to relating to people is to impress them with your knowledge. But the details of the mental map tell you that other people like to talk as well as listen. When you pause to listen to others while you're talking, it takes longer to tell them what you want to share. But they're more likely to stick around to hear what you have to say.

Also, listening can help turn knowledge into wisdom. Knowledge is absorbed facts. Wisdom is knowing what to do with facts. Some minds can develop wisdom from facts on their own, but almost everyone gets wiser from hearing the opinions of others. Hence the expression, “two heads are better than one.” I've often heard people with Asperger Syndrome use their facts to make assumptions that are wrong. By not letting others get a word in, those wrong assumptions don't get corrected. When people recognize that some of a speaker's conclusions are wrong, they can doubt the value of the rest of what he says.

So how do you learn to get good at back and forth conversations? Practice. The first lesson is to shut up and listen. That is, pick a situation where you would normally talk, and listen instead. Ask a parent a question, and listen to the answer without interrupting. Think about what you hear and analyze it. Come up with a short, one sentence response. Say it , then shut up again and listen. See how long you can keep the conversation going by making only short responses.

You also can study conversation by watching talk shows on television. Think about the questions the host is asking the guest, and see if you can think up questions you'd like to ask.

That's your next practice lesson. Treat a conversation like an interview, with you as the talk show host. You can even use an audio recorder, and listen to what you record later. Your part of the conversation is to ask questions and listen to the answer. Try to keep your questions short and get the person you're interviewing to talk as much as possible. Parents make great interview subjects for this conversation exercise.

Regular practice with these two lessons can reprogram your brain to make conversations easier and more natural for you.

Telling someone else to shut up is rude. But telling yourself when to shut up and when to talk can be a big step towards making the kind of comfortable conversations many people take for granted.

Just about everyone can improve at things they practice. And sometimes people who have to practice to learn something can get better at it than people who didn't have to work at it.

Believe me, it's worth the effort.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of the DVDs “Manners for The Real World: Basic Social Skills,” and “Managing Puberty, Social Challenges, and Almost Everything: A Video Guide for Girls.” You can find more information on his website:

Copyright 2013 Dan Coulter Used By Permission All Rights Reserved

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