The Power of being Silent … Shh!

The Power of being Silent … Shh!

The next time you tell someone to be silent ... think of this ... 

“The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'.”  

Alfred Brendel




I have just completed reading Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs. This book carefully examines the power of being silent and how it affects us daily with our customers, co-workers, friends and loved ones. The ability to communicate effectively allows us to show who we are as human beings. Through great communication, we display our feelings, values, intellect, influence and strengthen relationships and so much more. Most of us are still learning every day about improving our communication techniques. Like everyone else I can say I have probably put my foot in my mouth more times than I wish to admit!

Sometimes, we want to help too much, our enthusiasm takes control of us and possessing the curse of knowledge we just don’t shut up! It can be inappropriate. Solomon, author of the ancient Hebrew wisdom literature wrote, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” 

Here are four types of silence which explain the powerful beauty and absolute pain of silence.

I will start off with the negative forms of silence and end with the more positive ones.

Silent treatment: No winners here. Painful and hurtful beyond belief for both parties. One person is angry and hurt and obviously suffering whilst the other person is left in the dark not knowing where they stand equally suffering. This often occurs when respect is violated and there is tension. Thoughts pop up like, “He is sitting quietly to think of his next move” or “If I give the cold treatment they will get the message I am not impressed.” Emails are left unanswered, phone calls not returned and avoidance of meeting is often the strategy. Unfortunately, an absence of meaningful words and an inability or unwillingness to communicate will only cause division and separation, creating dysfunction in all relationships. Continued long periods of silence is a form of aggression and totally ineffective for solving any dispute.

My favourite book, Crucial Conversations – tools for talking when stakes are high by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler digs deeper and suggests negative silence can be broken into 3 categories:

Masking - withholding the full truth of what you actually think. Sarcasm, sugar coating and couching are some of the more popular forms.
Avoiding - involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
Withdrawing - pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either exit the conversation or exit the room. 

Awkward silence: empty spaces in conversation causes strange, uncomfortable feelings and no one really likes it. Sitting in silence without words for too long can be very off-putting. The expectation is for action, for direction. Our sense of well-being and our sense of time are intimately linked. Note solid relationships are comfortable with the silence, content with each other’s company and no words need to fill the awkward empty spaces.

Creating space through silence: It allows the goals of good communication to be achieved. True communication can only occur when there is mutual respect and listening occurs. Hence, the word listen has silent in it. By listening and being silent, we think before we speak and therefore, there is less chance of speaking impulsively and sending the wrong message. We empower the other person by showing discipline to not open our mouths and savour all the flavours of their conversation. William Isaacs says, “The silence is whole and at times sacred. The wisdom of the wider group takes precedence over the chatter of the individual.”

Mindful silence: by using the skill of reflection people are quiet and thoughtful. People are looking inward, listening to themselves for new possibilities. It is a very positive experience which requires deep thinking. Reflection is in fact, the most under-used performance enhancement tool.

Someone I admire greatly, Rabbi Gourarie says, “Being quiet when we should talk creates dysfunction and disunity among us. But silence, when timed correctly, is the language of connection.”

Often we are so convinced that our own perspective on a problem is right, that we don't stop to think about what we are actually missing. Use the positive voice of silence to collect your thoughts and to channel them in a more positive manner. Author, William Isaacs says, "People are not interested in what they are missing, just what they think others have already missed." Failing to talk effectively will always result in gaps that will eventually need filling for the relationship to survive. That’s why they say, “Speech is silver; Silence is golden.”


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