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