“Silence is a source of great strength“ – Lao Tzu, 6th century Chinese philosopher.
How do you react when a conversation falls silent? Blind panic? Make an excuse and a swift exit? Silence is supposed to be golden but sometimes we need help to use it effectively in our communication rather than avoiding it at all costs.
In the theatres at a concert, silence at the start of a performance can set the required tone or mood from the outset and draw the audience in, helping them to focus. In silent films where dialogue was replaced by a look, movement or action everything related back to the story. Again, the effect was to focus the audience’s attention.
Silence is not something that we get much of these days, even when we are alone. Technology is responsible for constant sound from phones, music or TV, without which the silence can feel intimidating. Then, when we are with others, we are conditioned to believe that the whole purpose of interacting is to be able to fill the silence with our entertaining conversation or to demonstrate that we are abreast of what is being discussed and have a useful contribution to make. We become fearful of awkward silences as we equate them with social inadequacy. The unpleasant nature of awkward silences causes us anxiety as we feel pressure to speak but are unsure of what to say next. When it is our turn to speak we jump right in with the first thing that we can think of! Why do we try to fill that gap? Watch Alan Sugar’s “The Apprentice” for proof that silence is often filled by people trying to prove that they can make a “useful” contribution.
There is such a thing as a fear of silence. Sufferers of sedatephobia fear silence and lack of noise to the extent that a power cut can bring on a full blown panic attack. People suffering from sedatephobia cannot withstand silence, they constantly need noise and human interaction.
Although relatively few people suffer from sedatephobia many of us might admit to having a robust fear of “uncomfortable” silences and a tendency to avoid situations in which they might arise.
In our western culture, we can view silence as a sign of lack of engagement in the conversation, disagreement, indifference or even anger. Yet in many cultures, silence is used to show respect: where there is a hierarchical structure the highest-ranking person present (the boss for example) is the spokesperson. Listening is valued rather than talking, the aim is for calm and order in interactions and silence implies thought.
Silence might seem like an unlikely ally when courting a client or negotiating a deal. Great communicators, however, are comfortable with silences as they know how to use pace and silence in their questioning in order to achieve an emotional connection. There is a way of silently holding the moment in a comfortable and gentle, non-confrontational manner in order to elicit a mature and honest response from the other person. We have a tendency to jump in and overfill silence or even try to contextualise it.
Silence used correctly, as a means of building a narrative, can be a key part of improving communication and negotiation but it is just one of a whole raft of useful tools that are available.
Becoming a great communicator is a journey that anyone can embark on and the rewards are immediate and invigorating. Our experts at Personal Presentation have had clients report, time and again, a dramatic, positive transformation in the outcome of their communication.
We’re very excited to announce that Julia’s book “YouBrand: Confident Anywhere” will be published on May 28th, 2020… watch this space!