The Coach's Corner

A time to be silent

The Coach’s Corner Newsletter #32

Waiting in line at the grocery store this week, it was just my luck to be behind two people who were having a heated discussion about a family matter as they slammed their groceries onto the conveyer belt. Trapped between them and another shopper in line, there was nowhere to go to escape their anger unless I abandoned my cart.

When one of them turned around and realized I was clearly in earshot – and that I was looking directly at her – she abruptly stopped talking. The other person still unloading the shopping cart continued arguing about ‘whatever’ for another 30 seconds or so. Then she, too, turned and saw that her friend was standing. Not responding. Silent. They moved on to pay for their groceries and leave the store, without a word between them.

Silence can be a powerful tool when used to diffuse a tense situation. It offers both sides a chance to retreat and return with a response they want to give, instead of regret.

But it’s awkward. Stepping out of a conversation, or waiting for a response, can feel uncomfortable. That is, unless we recognize how effectively that space can be used to listen to what’s going on and decipher what people are truly trying to figure out in the midst of the noise.


A time to be silent

There was a time when I explained myself in most interactions way beyond what anyone required to know from me. Somehow I believed that if I repeated something, changed it up a bit, filled the void with another reason to believe what I expressed – the other person would suddenly be converted to my way of thinking. For the record, that didn’t happen. Not even once.

A very wise mentor observed my efforts and challenged me.

Stop explaining yourself. In fact, say nothing.

For someone who always had an answer ready for just about any question, this seemed like a call to shrivel up and hide. But on the contrary, my mentor’s call for me was to stop and listen. Give space for the other. There was no need to get entangled in a debate neither of us would ever ‘win.’ Out loud I challenged him,

What am I supposed to do then?

In a nutshell, his response was to halt the counter-offensive.

When I chose to end my defensive reaction to the other’s words, there was nothing to fight over. Beyond that, when I stopped overtly challenging someone’s position and chose to be silent, I could actually hear what the other was saying without my words mixing up the issue. Because I was quiet, the noise of our disagreement could subside and I had a better understanding of the ‘thing under the thing.’

What a powerful experience I had when I was able to share what I was hearing, sometimes for the first time, without my loud words clogging up the conversation. As I was learning more about the other person, that person recognized they were being heard.

In a brilliant article by Peter Bregman, “If you want people to listen, stop talking,” he summarizes:

Let other people speak into the silence and listen quietly for the truth behind their words. They acknowledge what you’ve heard (which is, most likely, more than has been said) and, once the others feel heard, offer your view.


How to use silent communication effectively

When you choose to use silence, choose from a place of inquiry – rather than a place of manipulation. You know what it feels like to be in the midst of someone’s silent treatment, it feels more like punishment. Being cut off. Ghosted. Ignored.

Using silence in communication at work and in your life allows you to get under the issue. To hear and respond because you’ve offered the space and stopped yourself from entering into a reactive phase of conversation that leads to separation.

Here’s a great exercise from Psych Central on how to use silent communication effectively:

  1. Use gestures. When silently listening to others, use your eyes, gestures, and posture to convey interest. For example, continue eye contact if that is something the other person is comfortable with, and nod to indicate you acknowledge what they are saying.
  2. Pause before speaking. During an important conversation, like a job interview, allow a few seconds to pass before you answer questions. This can prevent you from divulging too much unnecessary information and give you time to formulate an appropriate response.
  3. Use silence for effect. You can use silence to add weight to your statements. For instance, try pausing for a moment after you’ve said something powerful and important to you to allow your message to sink in.
  4. Practice active listening with silence. For example, while you remain quiet in a conversation, consider making a conscious effort to understand the underlying thoughts, feelings, and ideas the other person is trying to communicate.

My takeaway

This week’s encounter in the grocery store may not have incorporated all of the positive ways to use silence – but the very act of being silent from one of the individuals brought a halt to the tension in the moment.

Sometimes, even that pause or break in a heated discussion may be all that’s necessary.

Filling up conversations with your ‘right’ ideas, your ‘expert’ opinions or your way of doing things can undermine relationships more than you realize. Leaving space to consider what another is thinking or experiencing can open up a path for true connection, if you can resist the pressure to say something.

Or, as Will Rogers says,

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

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