The Power of Silence for Effective Communication

By Liz McBride

dateFri, Mar 13, 2015 @ 09:00 AM

"Jack has such a sensitive, warm heart. Today, I came to school with some bad news. It may be a long time before I see two of my grandchildren. Jack just took my hand and held it and squeezed it. I am so honored to be working with such a loving boy!"

This was the email I received from my oldest son’s 5th grade teacher. Jack teaches me often that verbal communication is not always the most powerful form we have. I doubt I would have received this email if he had simply told her, “I’m sorry.”

Each weekday, I walk my two younger boys to school with, Maddie, our 7 month old black lab puppy. I IMG_2110start the walk with intentional silence and wait. As expected, my boys start filling the space with conversation and questions. Charlie updates me on what he learned about World War II, who got in trouble in class, and what position in flag football he hopes to play. Nicholas quizzes me on my knowledge of the Titanic, tells me how happy he is that we have a dog and how he worries kids will make fun of his glasses or freckles.

I return home to my silent house (as quiet as a house can be with a lab puppy). I have 30 minutes before I either open my laptop or join the Charlotte commute. I admit I spend the first half of this time with a cup of coffee with my friend, Matt Lauer, to catch up on the highlights of the day. My second cup of coffee is accompanied by silence. I resist the temptation to focus on texts, social media or emails during this time so that my mind doesn’t get pulled down one rabbit hole after another. I envision my day ahead. What are my top 3 things to focus on today? What are some ideas for areas I was stuck on yesterday? My workday begins and opportunities of silence are fewer, or so you may think... 

It’s unnatural for us to be silent, isn’t it?  In Leadership Blindspots, Robert Bruce Shaw points out: “Many leaders have a healthy degree of ego and are invested in being viewed as being decisive...action oriented.” Leaders rely on being heard, tend to dominate or lead conversations while thinking about the next clever thing to say. 

As the title of the book infers, if leaders don’t model a culture of collaboration, they’ll potentially be making decisions without all of the needed inputs. A great way to model this would be to weave in silence to your team meetings, interviews and 1:1 discussions.

Here are 5 silent weapons you can try:

  1. Listen for comprehension - Shaw explains that leaders tend to “have limited patience with people who belabor the obvious or take too long to get to the core of an issue. They cut people off and finish their sentences.” If, however, you are listening for comprehension, you are waiting for the period at the end of the sentence, turning off the swirling words in your head and removing electronic distractions.
  2. Embrace pregnant pauses - After you’ve listened for comprehension and feel there’s more to the story, allow uncomfortable silence to fill the space. Silence allows the speaker to think more about the issue and get to the crux of the matter. It’s amazing what you’ll glean after silence. I’ve personally enjoyed this technique during the interview process.  
  3. Observe the silent types - Keep a mental track on who has not voiced their opinion during a meeting. Call them by name and allow for any feedback, e.g., “Jessica, you’ve been pretty quiet, what are your thoughts?” If Jessica seems dismissive or quiet, be sure to catch up with her on a break or later in the day. There may be an underlying reason, such as a dynamic of who is in the room or a fear of being wrong. If you consistently observe silent types in the room, you may consider asking a facilitator to run your next meeting.
  4. Give someone else the mic - It’s natural for leaders to kick off a session; however, when it comes to discussions, try being the last one to offer an opinion. Ask your team members to report out on previous experiences or updates so you can be in the position to share last.
  5. Give your mouth a break - In the Silent Language of Leaders, Gorman provides evidence of direct correlation between strategic eye contact given to the speaker and the subsequent amount of information shared. A glance is not enough; one must fully engage with the speaker. Gorman also explains that tilting your head or nodding three times encourages people to talk much more. Again, here, I feel the challenge will be more about not looking at your phone or computer than anything else. If you work virtually, I would encourage using a camera to be able to incorporate your own non-verbal cues while observing those in others.

If you’re mind is a pinball machine of alerts, pings, tasks and words and you need help from within and from those around you to make sense of it all, try silence. When incorporated strategically, silence is not a weakness but a focusing and collaborative power tool.

For me, silence is my reset button, a weapon to get my buttoned up boys to confide in me, a way to keep discussions going and getting to what’s really going on below the surface chit-chat. Silence also has a way of making a teacher’s day.

Now, shhhhhhhh… I need to think of how to end this blog.

How do you use the power of silence? 


Liz McBride


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images