Etiquette Guy

Why Silence Really Is Golden

Why Silence Really Is Golden
Image credit: Paul Sahre
This story appears in the April 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Conspicuous silence during any meeting makes you seem like one of two things: either the most engaged person or the least. Which one of those things you seem like is determined by the Seniority/Silence Bell Curve (or SSBC), which was established in 2016 by Entrepreneur columnist Ross McCammon. According to the SSBC: Silent bosses always seem smart, silent interns always seem smart and everyone else generally seems dumb, freaked out, uninterested, intimidated and/or on doctor’s orders not to speak. But, like talking, silence is a form of communication. And it’s only conspicuous if it’s coupled with inexpression. 

Why speaking is overrated

I try not to speak during the first 10 minutes of a meeting. It’s the meeting equivalent of not swinging for the first pitch when you’re at bat -- and everyone else in the room is a pitcher. The first pitch is the banter or speech or lunch order tossed early on in the meeting. (OK, I speak if it’s a lunch order.) Even if that first pitch is a hanging fastball right over the plate -- an opportunity that would allow you to deliver a prepared or unprepared pithy nugget of wisdom, reason or way forward -- resist the urge. Wait till the next pitch. No one has ever regretted not speaking in the first 10 minutes of the meeting. Resist. And then wait. Your time will come again. 

Ready to speak now? Yeah? The question is not what are you going to say. The question is: Why are you going to say it? 

Mark Goulston, psychiatrist and author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, suggests you ask yourself that question. 

I’ll let him talk. 

“There’s an acronym.”

Oh, good.

“It’s a cute one. I don’t know if you’ve heard it.”

The cute acronyms are the best acronyms, Mark. You know what, I’ll be quiet. Please continue. 

“It’s called WAIT. Before you say something, you ask yourself, Why Am I Talking? What’s my evidence that what I say isn’t going to take the topic off-track?”

The question, says Ethan Burris, associate professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, allows you to weigh the cost-benefits of speaking. He adds: “The costs usually come down to two different barriers. The first is the feeling of safety. Are there any repercussions for speaking up? And will this result in any change? So it’s a constant weighing the scales. Where you really want to change things, are you going to get kicked in the process and do you actually stand a chance at really making a difference?”

Err on the side of waiting. Because a lot happens in a pause. 

The power of the pause

Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen says that how we respond to pauses is representative of how we communicate. “When two people have different senses of how long a pause is normal, the one who is expecting a shorter pause gets the impression the other has nothing to say when in fact the other is waiting for a pause to take their turn. At a meeting, this could mean that the person who talks too often thinks no one else wants the floor, whereas in fact the others are waiting for a pause so they can speak.” 

A common interview technique for journalists is to allow a pause to go on longer than is comfortable. More often than not, the interviewee will fill the silence -- often with a great quote. 

Not a bad tactic. And one that can work for you, too. “Force yourself to be comfortable with longer silences to see if someone else jumps in,” Tannen says. “Or try asking others what they think, which gives you the satisfaction of speaking without putting all the onus of talk on you.”

How to talk without saying anything

“The irony is you’re most present when you’re noticing something or someone outside yourself,” Goulston, the psychiatrist, says. “Being present doesn’t mean talking a lot. You know someone who’s present?” 

And here, Goulston pauses for effect. 

“Pope Francis.” 

It’s true. When you think of a pope, you don’t think of a speech. You think of a smile, a nod. Does a flowing white robe and ceremonial headdress help with the presence? Yes. Is it necessary? Not at all. Does a cassock seem like it would be supercomfortable, versatile and authoritative all at the same time? 

Yes. 

Yes, it does.  

Did I just say that out loud? 

The point is: How we are silent is as important as that we are silent. Looking at people directly when they are speaking, reacting with a nod or a squint or a smile is way more powerful than talking for the sake of talking. Silence is a tool, a gift and a means to contribute -- even (or especially) when you have nothing to say.  

Edition: December 2016

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