“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” – Gordon Hempton, John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence
For a behavior analyst, any valuable intervention begins with thoughtful observation. I spent years in this role, silently observing students and teachers in schools to gather data that contributed to meaningful behavior and educational change. In that profession, silence was not only valued, but critical to gain an appropriate assessment.
However, shifting my focus from schools to corporate environments was jarring. There was such a stark contrast in the value of silence. If I wasn’t the loudest in the room, others thought I had nothing to say.
For something that is so quiet, silence can hold many meanings. The silence that happens after an orchestra plays is moving. In a horror film, it’s terrifying. The silence of a new baby sleeping is peaceful. The silence of a hike in the woods is rejuvenating. And the silence that happens when we communicate can be powerful; embracing that silence, however, doesn’t come naturally for some leaders.
Why silence matters.
Silence isn’t just quiet moments between the noise. Our brains actually benefit from silence.
- Loud noise triggers our brains to release cortisol, a stress hormone. (Translation: loud noise = stress.)
- One study found that silence has benefits on our brains even over “relaxing” music! (Translation: turn off that music for a little bit.)
- According to the attention restoration theory, silence restores our distracted and mentally fatigued brains. (Translation: Give your brain a break.)
- A preliminary study has found that silence can actually develop new cells in our hippocampus. (Translation: New brain cells form within the learning, memory, and emotion center of our brain.)
How can leaders learn to embrace the silence?
Wait your turn. Believe it or not, we don’t have to be the first one to speak. When leading a meeting with direct reports or other leaders, consciously choosing not to indulge the need to speak first gives others the space to act or speak. Some people require this processing time to consider their own ideas, opinions, and reactions. These silent types have valuable input to share, if you give them a chance to process. Collaborative and innovative discussions can emerge from the pause of silence.
Think. Silence isn’t something that always needs to be filled. Take the time to check in with your own thoughts and opinions before you respond in the moment during a meeting or throughout your day. There will be days filled with a barrage of emails, phone calls, meetings, or putting out fires, providing very little time to sit with your own thoughts. Look at your calendar and carve out time each day for thinking, even for just 10 uninterrupted minutes, to give yourself the dedicated space to reap the benefits of silence. You may find that you become more proactive and your goals become clearer.
Observe. As you communicate your message to others, take a cue from behavior analysts and look around. What’s going on with the discussion? Is there excitement? Distress? Pensiveness? Confusion? Read the room (and don’t forget to check in with virtual folks). Look for not only emotional cues, but also signals that indicate people understand (or don’t understand) what’s being said. As you understand the silence, use your emotional intelligence to consider how you can thoughtfully contribute to the conversation or clarify your message to help others understand. See the silence as an opportunity to move a conversation forward.
Giving the gift of silence.
Silence doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Silence is useful, purposeful, and powerful. Give others the gift of silence and observe what happens next. Collaboration, innovation, shared understanding, and meaningful conversations can emerge when you intentionally use silence to enhance your communication.
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