“The world would be happier if men had the same capacity to be silent that they have to speak.” – Baruch Spinoza

We fear silence. Perhaps not in the same way we fear heights or snakes or *insert debilitating personal phobia here*. Silence does not tend to bring about bodily shakes, dizzy spells or stultifying ramifications of any kind. Yet it is something we frequently work to avoid, now more so than ever.

All one has to do is look around a busy train carriage to see this fear being played out, invariably in the most mundane of ways. Gathered commuters bristle overcoat to overcoat. Some listen to music or podcasts. Others scroll dimly through their phones. The majority half-heartedly do both. In an age of consumption, where our duty is to swallow content reliably, if more often than not indifferently, silence, even in the briefest of doses, has become something with which we are unable to contend.

Of course it’s spilled into the workplace too. Silence is frowned upon. If you are in a meeting, you should be speaking, or at the very least have something to say. In keeping with the indefatigable antagonism of social media, you should have an opinion – a “take”. It’s recommended that you have at least one of these for every subject and are willing, ideally desperate, to express it. Because if you don’t have something to say, why are you in the meeting at all?

“X didn’t add anything to the discussion today, did you notice?” It’s often said (and still more often thought) after a meeting. Someone was not pulling their weight, did not contribute as expected. What it means is they didn’t speak enough. Because value is about quantity not quality. Many a worker has ascended the corporate ladder by being nothing more than a vocaliser, demonstrating a willingness to express opinions, unhelpful or outright irrelevant as they may be, with confidence and frequency.

Of course neither being a professional loudmouth nor professional churchmouse is the ideal state of play. And an advocacy of silence does mean being silent all the time. One should most certainly express opinions if they have them. But silence, already such a rarity, needs more uptake. The amount one says may have become the de facto model for assessing contribution, but it’s a false economy. It is far more beneficial to have a worker who understands the power of silence, and knows how to wield it well.

The power of silence in…meetings

Obviously how a meeting plays out is dependent on many factors: the parties involved, the topic of discussion, the format and formality. In some cases it may be that you have to speak first and for a prolonged period, due to your role at your company or expertise in whatever is being discussed. But when that’s not the case, there’s a great deal to be said for starting from a quiet place.

In letting others speak first, you learn their priorities, their potential doubts (which you can then work to alleviate) as well as getting a sense of their demeanour or disposition. When it’s your turn to speak, you can then tailor your points and tone accordingly. How you deal with someone open and relaxed will be different to how you deal with someone fixed and uncompromising, for example. The ability to tailor your approach and play the hand you’re dealt is invaluable.

It should be noted that in the context of a meeting, choosing silence does not have to be some grand gesture. It can consist of as little as giving a few seconds after someone has spoken for their point to land. As well as showing respect to their point – by giving it time to be considered, rather than jumping in right away, giving the impression all you’ve been doing is waiting for your turn to speak – it lets you process what they’ve said and respond with considered insight. Too often meetings consist entirely of people who want to make points, none of whom are willing to listen to anyone else’s.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Allison Shapira, founder/CEO of Global Public Speaking and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, suggests some tools for knowing when it’s right to speak in a meeting and when it’s best to choose silence.

Before entering any meeting she suggests you write up bullet points of things you feel you really want to say – not waffle that you feel will validate your being there, actual points you think are important – as well as asking “why me?” By this she means, why do you care about any of this – your role, organisation etc. Answering that question adds to your sense of purpose and confidence, as well as reminding you that your worth in the meeting comes from your passion and experience, not your word count.

Shapira suggests one doesn’t speak if they’re only doing so to show off, either about how much they know or about how willing they are to be part of the room’s vocal contingent. Nor should one speak if they’re doing so only to empower others. Empowering others may sound like a positive, but by stepping up to be the group’s speaker, even if you then delegate conversation to others, serving as a sort of intermediary, you become a crutch for them. It may be helpful in the moment, but not in the long-term. Finally, before speaking, one should ask themselves whether what they’re going to say might be better held back for a one-on-one conversation. There’s nothing to be gained by airing dirty laundry in public, nor by wasting twenty minutes of a whole group’s time by talking about something that only concerns one of them.

It’s important to be vigilant about these things. As the old saying goes, “Most of us know how to say nothing; few of us know when” [1].

The power of silence in…leadership

Leaders, in particular, need to pay attention to how they are using silence, or more often failing to. Research conducted by Leigh Plunkett Tost of the University of Washington, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, and Richard P. Larrick of Duke University into the relationship between power and leadership found that, “Members of teams with high-power leaders are likely to keep quiet in meetings, both because high-power leaders talk a lot, meaning there’s not much time for others to talk, and because of the perception – fair or not – that powerful people aren’t interested in anyone else’s ideas” [2].

That perception could be wrong, but if your employees think it’s true – and so hold back on sharing ideas as a result of it – then the company will suffer all the same. Managers may not be aware of the power differential between themselves and their employees, or the impact it has on what employees are willing to say to them. As such, a manager may announce a decision and then assume from their employees’ silence that they are happy with it (because if not, surely they would speak up?) In actuality, the employees may simply see no point in saying anything because they think the boss has already made up their mind. As Kate Donovan, founder of US-based consultancy Equal Pay Negotiation, points out, “That’s a very dangerous difference” [3].

To get a true idea of what their employees think about what they’ve said, a leader should ask their team, “What’s your initial reaction to that idea?” as a starting point, opening the floor for comment without leading the witness.

The power of silence in…speaking

Strange as it may sound, silence is also one of the most valuable tools in our arsenal when speaking. Matthew MacLachlan, from the language and soft skills training provider Learnlight, has some tips for how to use silence in public performance: “Before starting, look at the audience and be silent for a moment because that says, ‘I’m in control. I know what I’m doing. I’m confident.’” [4] Not only that, but it garners more attention for the points you’re making. “Silence makes us nervous,” MacLachlan adds, “our instinctive reaction is that we’d better pay attention, there’s something going on here.”

Ginny Radmall, speaking coach and director of The Ivy Way, is also a proponent of the power of silence in speaking [5]. She notes how we use filler words such as “um” and “ah” to replace silence. Not only do such words lend a sense of uncertainty and lack of confidence, they also interrupt our breathing rhythm, so vital to speaking well. Overlong sentences, too, detract from impact. Silence works as an emphasis. Watch a few minutes of Steve Jobs here, or Barack Obama here. Rather than letting words tumble out in one long stream that the audience must then fish through to find what’s important, silence lets one know where their attention should be. When speaking, you want to make life as easy as possible for those listening to you. Silence helps.

The power of silence in…negotiation

Research conducted at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in both Dutch and English found that when a silence in conversation stretched to four seconds, people started to feel unsettled [6]. In contrast, a separate study of business meetings found that Japanese people were happy with silences of 8.2 seconds – twice as long as English speakers [7].

Unsurprisingly, that fact is one global business people are aware of and attempt to use to their advantage. MacLachlan notes how, “Chinese negotiators are very, very aware that Americans like to fill silences and they are trained to stay silent and impassive because that will make the Americans uncomfortable and possibly make concessions without the Chinese having to do anything” [8]. Silence is golden – and gold is worth a lot of money.

Donal Carbaugh, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, points out that Finns, too, consider silence to be a vital virtue. They are happy to sit in studied thoughtfulness. “No-one is saying anything but everybody’s thinking. They are engaged. The frame around silence at that point can be very positive,” he says [9].

But of course one’s nationality should not be the sole dictator of whether they are able to use silence to their favour. Whether we’re borrowing from the Chinese, Japanese, Finnish or whoever it may be, any of us can adopt a less talkative, more considered approach. It won’t feel natural at first. As with anything, it takes practice.

Success in silence

In a world overspilling with noise and data, silence is a rarity. But if utilised, it can offer us benefits in life and business. We negotiate with more authority, learn to listen and engage with what’s being said to us rather than just waiting for our turn to talk, and it lets us speak with greater clarity and emphasis. That’s not to say we must keep tight-lipped on all our thoughts or feelings; we should express anything important to us. But to avoid getting drowned out by the noise, it may be worth cutting out some of the waffle.

If you really want to feel the impact of silence, check out John Cage’s famous “music” piece 4:33.

More on Silence

The benefits of silence in our professional lives article by Shay Dalton

Introverts, extroverts and leadership podcast with Karl Moore