“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” .
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” .
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” .
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.’”  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 . 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 . 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 .
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” . 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 .
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.
Among the holistic factors that impact job performance may be something that many of us do not acknowledge or take little notice of but matters considerably. That is our ability to mediate our environment and self-generate calm through silence. Without it, we may allow mental fatigue, creative stagnation, and distraction to influence our decisions and output.
Not all noise we experience is sound-based
The amount of conversation in the world is ever-expanding. Between our tasks, colleagues, smartphones, tablets and computers, we are surrounded by noise, white noise, and visible signals of something or someone to respond to. Transit to and from work can be loud, if not chaotic. Even if it is not, often it is frustrating. There is activity, commotion and movement in almost everything we do, which prevents silence and inhibits a sense of calm. Even without these contributing ‘noise-makers,’ the brain can be just as loud.
The meaning of silence
Silence, which should contain an absence of sound, is loaded. It is associated with loneliness, heaviness or awkwardness, and some use it as an indicator of emotional withdrawal, disapproval or punishment. Even in language, silence often carries negative connotations, e.g., a ‘conspiracy of silence,’ ‘silent war,’ being given ‘the silent treatment,’ or ‘lifting the veil of silence.’
To our detriment, increasingly, we perceive silence less and less as a form of strength. In other words, it is something to be done away with, not strive for. However, finding silence in our workday can offer us much-needed clarity and renewal in micro-doses and is, in fact, ‘an essential part of professional and/or personal development’ (Alerby, 2003). Here is why.
The Values of Silence
In his book Silence: In the age of noise, explorer Erling Kagge (2017) calls silence ‘the new luxury.’ Make no mistake, the nature of our existence in a busy and noisy world necessitates locating points of silence—it is not a luxury. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that investigated the impact of environmental noise from planes, trains and vehicles, and other community and leisure sources in Western Europe. It concluded that too much noise is a corrosive element in our lives. Not surprisingly, studies also show that dialling down the audible noise offers psychological and mental health advantages, such as enhanced creativity, heightened focus, self-control, self-awareness, and greater perspective. When these faculties of our mind operate at optimal levels, we can have more confidence in our thoughts and decisions because we are sure that our brain is functioning as we want and need it to. Silence is, therefore, a ‘sense-making process’ (Alerby, 2003).
Within reflective praxis, silence is also an active process. In Japan and Japanese business culture, silence is considered as important as speaking because it offers a ‘moment to understand what has just been communicated’ and to ‘respond in a well thought out manner’ (ibid). Through silence, we might understand the value of what is being said to us. If we allow it to be, silence is instructive, and periods of reflection, no matter how brief, may yield more understanding or extra time to overcome a problem. Famously, Francis Bacon once said, ‘Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.’
Productivity is a universal term in professional environments. How we achieve it is varied but not typically aligned with silence and taking a pause. Some business insiders argue that, contrary to logic or belief, the collective benefits of silence and taking a break from our professional responsibilities may stimulate productivity and creativity. Before he was a figure of nonviolent resistance, Gandhi was a lawyer and kept a weekly day of silence on Mondays to re-centre himself and concentrate specifically on work. Others like Vijay Eswaran, chief executive of Qi Group, a Hong Kong conglomerate, and Nick Seaver of Ziff Capital Partners have combined meditation with professional development and attribute time spent in silence to their successes. Reducing internal noise is as critical as reducing external noise.
There are physical benefits to be derived as well. Spending time in silence positively affects the body by reducing blood pressure, boosting the immune system, reducing blood cortisol, promoting hormone regulation and preventing arterial plaque formation. Moreover, research published in the National Library of Medicine indicates that prolonged silence produces new cells within the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory and the senses. Even just two minutes of silence a day has a calming effect more significant than listening to relaxing music. Although extended silence may be difficult to come by at work (and home), its value on your psychological and physical well-being is clear. Make time to engage in forms of wakeful rest.
Strategies for finding silence
How do you incorporate silence into your day? Time and space are needed for this, and some amount of ‘pure’ silence is beneficial if it can be found. If it cannot, meditation takes many forms and does not require classes. There are apps, and then there is simply sitting with yourself, gathering your thoughts, or letting go of them for a few minutes each day. Silence is as much a context as it is a process, and you can find it anywhere. We must seek it.
Similarly, you can meditate on an ad hoc basis. Walks, driving or riding the train, waiting at the doctor’s office, and layovers at the airport provide regular windows for meditation, contemplation, release and quiet decompression. Remember, it is more important to find a place for and not necessarily of silence. All you need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation, which, as the Mayo Clinic suggests, is good medicine.
Guard this space in your schedule
Achieving silence takes effort. For most people learning to use silence involves meditation training, retreats and wilderness experiences. Keep yourself open to what your mind and body require, and do not let this time and space be interrupted. Make it sacred, especially if it can only be a few minutes a day.
Soundlessness applies to a quiet mind as well. Take email and social media breaks and blackouts. Do not let yourself be consumed by ‘silent’ conversations. Our internal chatter greatly contributes to a lack of silence. Ultimately, if we cannot control the noise level in our society, we have some say regarding the amount of silence in our lives. These psychological and physical reprieves may be critical during difficult or tense periods.
References & Resources
Eva Alerby & Jo´runn Eli´do´ttir Alerby (2003) ‘The Sounds of Silence: Some remarks on the value of silence in the process of reflection in relation to teaching and learning,’ Reflective Practice, 4:1, 41-51. DOI: 10.1080/1462394032000053503
Bernardi L, Porta C, Sleight P. ‘Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: the importance of silence.’ Heart. 2006 Apr; 92(4): 445-52. DOI: 10.1136/hrt.2005.064600
Erling Kagge (2017) Silence: In the age of noise, Becky L. Crook (trans.), Vintage Books.
Dan Ruch (2017), Founder and CEO of Rocketrip, ‘Why Silence May Yield More Productivity Than You Think,’ published in Inc., https://www.inc.com/dan-ruch/why-silence-may-yield-more-productivity-than-you-t.html
Betsy Mikel (2016), Owner of Avek, ‘Neuroscience Reveals Nourishing Benefits That Silence Has on Your Brain,’ published in Inc., https://www.inc.com/betsy-mikel/your-brain-benefits-most-when-you-listen-to-absolutely-nothing-science-says.html
Mayo Clinic Staff (2022) Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress
The WHO European Centre for Environment and Health (2011) ‘Burden of Disease from Environmental Health: Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe,’ Bonn Office, WHO Regional Office for Europe coordinated the development of this publication.
Vijay Eswaran profile by Paul Maidment (2007) ‘The Sound of Silence,’ in Forbes
Nick Seaver TedX
See also Ted Talk