I used to hate those awkward silences that you come across in a conversation with someone or in a meeting when a question is asked and no one answers. I avoided silence like the plague, filling those empty spaces with my own chatter. In fact, in every conversation that I had, my mind would engage like an IBM supercomputer while others spoke, preparing my next response so that I could pounce as soon as the speaker took a breath, ensuring no ensuing silence whatsoever. When my husband spoke, I finished his sentences. All. The. Time.
But then something transformative happened to me that changed the way I interacted with everyone. I met Cathy. Cathy is an executive leadership coach that I had the opportunity to work with a few years ago. I learned a great deal from Cathy, but the most valuable interpersonal skill she taught me was how to use silence.
Silence doesn’t sound like your typical interpersonal skill. No one ever says in a job interview that they are good at being silent. Don’t you have to be engaging with someone to actually even call it an interpersonal skill? Actually, silence is quite engaging, and probably the greatest interpersonal skill that I’ve ever learned in three surprising ways.
First, silence has helped me understand people better. People are treasure troves of information. We don’t often realize that because we are either not listening, preparing our own response in our heads, or interrupting. But if instead of doing those things, we just remain quiet, the person who is speaking will fill the space with more information. To keep my own brain quiet while they are talking, I focus on creating a summary of what they are saying. Then I repeat it back to them when they are finished. My summaries are not always accurate – often they are not accurate at all, so I go back to being silent and let the other person clarify. I repeat the new version back again until we both agree that the summary is correct. This iterative process using silence has given me a number of a-ha moments as the light bulb finally came on and I really did understand the other person’s point of view.
Silence also helps to calm people down. In my day job, I supervise people, and they often come to me in a state of distress. Maybe they are having a conflict with someone in the office or they are dealing with a problem or crisis at work. Managers seem to be magnets for these kinds of emotions. Have you ever talked to someone in a state of distress? Typically, they are speaking very quickly and in a very animated way – maybe even rambling a bit. The temptation is to interrupt them and pepper them with questions to make sense of it all, but I have found that interrupting a rambling person is like poking a sleeping bear – it doesn’t end well. Responding with silence instead gives the other person the space they need to get it all off their chest so to speak. When I summarize for them what I just heard them say, you can actually hear the sigh as they calm themselves down. Then I start asking questions to learn more. This can take a long time. I once had a staff person in my office who spoke for 45 minutes straight, uninterrupted, before she was finished. But when she left, she was considerably calmer, which made it well worth my time.
Finally, silence also helps ME to calm down. Since I am also a human being, sometimes my own emotions can get worked up in a discussion with someone. This usually happens when there is dissent or disagreement. Dissent is very powerful. You need dissent and you need people to disagree with you to see all the different perspectives of an issue and make the best decision. But dissent can also feel threatening, triggering a physiological response – racing heartbeat, shallow breathing – that makes you want to do anything but be silent. This chain reaction would often lead me to become very defensive, which rather than calming me down, would work me up that much more.
Once more silence turned out to be my greatest tool. Instead of preparing my response in my head – a defensive response to be sure – when I feel the emotional trigger being pulled, I take a small moment to dampen that physiological reaction by engaging a moment of silence and taking a deep breath. Then I simply acknowledge the comment by saying, “That’s interesting”, which buys me more time to calm down. And finally I fully settle into silence with the question, “Can you tell me more or can you explain that idea more?” By the time the person has finished explaining their point of view, I have successfully turned off the emotional part of my brain and am receptive to what they have to say.
So, while you may never have guessed it, silence is a powerful interpersonal skill after all. Silence makes it easier to listen effectively, and the more effectively you listen, the more you learn and the more you understand. You can use silence like a magic wand to defuse conflict and calm people down, including yourself. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Try it yourself. In your next conversation, embrace the awkward silence. Don’t fill the space with your own chatter and don’t prepare responses in your head while others are talking. Make it a game – try to be the person who speaks the least and comes up with the best summary of what the other person is saying. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you learn and the effect you can produce by doing so.