Many years ago, when I coached families on communication skills, I was still learning about the value of silence in communication. Like others, if someone was in distress or had a problem, I was compelled to share information that I thought would be helpful.
When I first started the job and my boss spent several days shadowing me with clients as part of training. I was assigned to work with a single mom who was struggling to handle family conflict and behavior problems with her kids. She was overwhelmed. I had just met her and was sitting with her and my boss. We were sitting together as she explained what she was going through. As she talked about her situation, she shared her feelings. She began to cry.
I wanted to console her. I opened my mouth to tell her that it would be okay. That we would work together to get her through this. But before the words came out, I happened to glance over at my boss. He shot me a look that said, “Be quiet.” Really? He wanted me to just sit there while this woman cried? It seemed cold and awkward. But if that’s what I needed to do, so be it. So we sat, and she cried, it was uncomfortable. But then she stopped crying and started talking.
She shared more information about the situation and her thoughts on it. She had ideas about how we might work together. She seemed hopeful, and I got more information than I would have had I talked. I learned that day that keeping quiet can be a very powerful communication tool.
Three reasons to use silence in communication:
Get more information
If your intent is to get more information about a topic, then keeping quiet can help. The person you’re speaking with will be able to share more information if you’re not talking. In negotiation, if you keep quiet, your counterpart may share information that you otherwise might not have. If you’re seeking feedback from someone, silence in your communication will encourage them to share information they may have held back.
Gain deeper understanding
If you want to get a deeper understanding of the topic, by keeping quiet, the other person will share more in-depth information. You may get more background information, more insight into what they’re thinking. When you’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next, but instead really listening, you’ll gain more understanding not only about the subject at hand but your conversation partner’s thoughts and feelings about it.
Demonstrate your desire to know more
Silence in communication can show the speaker that you have a true interest in the topic. If you’re listening rather than talking, you’re showing the speaker that you’re interested in what they have to say. If you’re seeking feedback, for example, by letting the speaker continue, you show that you truly want to know more.
Silence in communication can be uncomfortable at first. If you’re not accustomed to silence during a conversation, you’ll feel awkward and want to fill the silence. Resist the urge. Let the silence be there. The other person will feel that same discomfort and urge to speak. You will get more information than you would have had you continued to talk.
Leigh Espy, PMP, SPC, CSM, is the author of “Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to Run Meetings That Are Effective, Focused, and Produce Results.” She has over 15 years of project management experience with a primary focus on IT project management and has led multimillion dollar international projects and corporate strategy initiatives. Leigh also coaches and mentors project managers and those making a move to a project management career. You can find out more about Leigh at ProjectBliss and LeighEspy.com. Leigh writes about communication and project methodologies.