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'Playing Dumb' May Be Smart

It’s hard to ignore the gaffes of today’s politicians—but you canlearn to hold your tongue when a colleague makes one.

That’s the advice of Geoffrey Tumlin, author of  Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. 

While you may wince when you hear Gov. Chris Christie do it, and even feel some sympathy, there’s nothing you can do about it.

The case is different when it happens to a friend or colleague.:

Maybe Jim in accounting shares a little too much about his weekend during a lunch conversation, your boss says something completely loony about a client on the way to a sales call, or your coworker Sarah lays a nutty conspiracy theory on you during an informal chat in the hallway.

 Yes, dumb statements are a fact of life—but according to communication consultant Tumlin, you can reduce the negative impact of someone else’s dumb statements by playing dumb yourself.

  “Playing dumb means that you pretend like you didn’t see it or hear it when another person does or says something ill advised,” says Tumlin,. “This strategy benefits you, the other person, and the underlying relationship.”

 Specifically, Tumlin explains, playing dumb allows your conversational partner time to self-correct (e.g., “That’s not what I meant” or “I can’t believe I just said that, sorry”) after an ill-conceived statement. This valuable conversational space allows hasty and counterproductive words to disappear without comment, thus preventing unnecessary damage to the underlying relationship.

  “Playing dumb is an especially smart strategy in the digital age where we are doing so much more talking, texting, and tweeting,” he adds. “Because communication and people are fundamentally imperfect, more communication means that there will be more incidents that require the silent treatment.”

Here, Tumlin shares some rules to help you smarten up by playing dumb when you see or hear something stupid:

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. But remember: Actions speak just like words, so if you’re serious about defusing the episode instead of escalating it, you’ll need to pretend that you’re competing in the World Series of Poker.

Muzzle your inner know-it-all. It’s human nature to want to be right. However, the urge to prove another person wrong often gets people into hot water and torpedoes conversations. Correcting another person can spark arguments, damage the way he perceives you, and harm the underlying relationship. Remember, nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes being contradicted.

Don’t expect it to be easy. Playing dumb sounds simple: Just don’t react. And it yields compelling relational benefits. But despite its usefulness, don’t expect playing dumb to be easy. According to Tumlin, it’s often difficult to override your instincts—and your desire—to respond with comebacks, criticisms, and corrections.

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 relational problem. If you find yourself playing dumb frequently, it may be a warning sign of a larger issue that you need to address.

Don’t feed the fire. Tumlin says it’s easiest and best when your silence and intentional gaps provide enough room for someone to self-correct. But 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, you can use neutral continuers like um-hum, I see, okay, or I hear you.

Pick and choose your targets. Tumlin advises you to 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.

desire for self-expression, playing dumb is a tool that’s both necessary and effective.”

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