You probably don’t believe that silence is one of my favorite tools. Certainly when I taught a presentation skills class to Johns Hopkins graduate students, they did not expect me to talk about silence! But I did. And at the end of the week, their final presentations showed how silence can be so effective.
When Mariah began her program, we all saw how powerful silence can be. She paused. She made eye contact with her audience. She waited. Only when a room full of curious eyes were focused on her did she begin to speak.
We saw it when Kristin began her meeting with a question — neither simplistic nor overly complex — designed to transform an audience into a group of participants. She asked. She waited. Sometimes she waited five to eight seconds, and five to eight seconds of silence is longer that you might think! It’s very hard to listen to silence.
We watched Tad use silence in a marketing brainstorming session. There was a blizzard of ideas, but when the flurries slowed and then stopped, he didn’t move on. He waited, in silence, for a full 60 seconds. The best ideas of the session followed that silence.
And I know that skillful negotiators, like my colleague Michael, use silence in their work every day. I’ve heard Michael say, “The person who speaks first, loses.” I think he’s right, and how-to books on negotiation concur.
I like to use silence in the appreciation segment of a teambuilding session (my favorite part of these workshops!) when colleagues tell one another what they genuinely like about working together. The inevitable lull comes, and everyone looks at me as if to say, “Well, we did it. Can we go home now?” I just smile and wait, knowing that my silence will give them time to appreciate one another in a deeper way.
How can you use silence in your work and life?
A few years ago, I rushed home after work to pick up my son for a chiropractic appointment. “Jeffrey, get in the car!” I bellowed. Since I am not one to waste time, on my way out the door I grabbed the baseball equipment in the foyer and stashed it in the garage where it belonged.
We were on time for our appointment, but the chiropractor was not. As we languished in the waiting room, I received a text from my husband, Bill, that said, “You must have left in a hurry, the TV was on, there are dishes on the counter, and there’s a bat on the table.”
Slightly insulted, but deciding to take the high road, I responded,“Thanks for cleaning up and starting dinner.”
He replied, “Do you want fish or hamburger? And, what do you think I should do with the bat?”
What was his preoccupation with that darn baseball bat? I typed back, taking a deep breath and remembering all his many amazing qualities, “Put the bat in the garage with the cleats.”
To which he responded, “But I’m concerned about rabies.”
Wait. What? All this time he was talking about a flying rodent in our kitchen? I’m concerned about rabies too!
He referenced the bat several times, but I was so wrapped up in my own concerns — being tired, hungry, and frustrated — that I failed to truly understand what he had said.
Miscommunication happens all the time in business, and in life. And it’s often the result of not looking outside of ourselves and truly appreciating the efforts and words of those around us. I bet you have had a miscommunication today, and certainly this week. Pretend that I am Ellen Degeneres and send them to me. I can’t wait to read them!