When I was in graduate school, one of the strategies we were taught in clinical psychology was using silence as a therapeutic tool. I remember how awkward it felt when I first tried it. In relationships, there is an expectation to speak (sometimes, too much). Even a few seconds of silence between two people can feel uncomfortable. However, in time, I came to discover that silence was not only a powerful therapeutic tool, but also a very effective strategy as a leader.
Here are a few situations when silence can work to your advantage as a leader:
When you want to learn more about an employee or colleague. The best way to learn information is to stop talking and listen. Use nonverbal gestures and expressions to show interest, but allow the person to talk without a lot of commentary. This will make the person feel like you're interested in what they have to say and they'll likely share more information than they would if you interrupt or quickly jump in every time there is a slight pause.
When an employee or colleague is distressed. When someone is upset, usually they just want someone to listen. Leaders often make the mistake of jumping in quickly and trying to find a solution. However, this isn't necessarily the best strategy. Good leaders give their employees the tools they need to find their own answers, and silence is one of the tools you can use to help employees find their own tools. In fact, I find that when I let someone vent, they often discover answers on their own. In some cases, they come to realize that they played a role in what they're upset about, or they realize that the situation isn't as bad as they thought it.
After you say something very powerful. The silence gives your audience a chance to process what you said, which will help them remember it better.
When negotiations are going nowhere. When the same positions and arguments keep being made and no resolution seems to be in sight, silence can be an effective tool to stop the conversation and get the other side to reflect on what is happening. Silence is akward for most people. They instinctively want to fill in the blank space. If you don't engage, the other side may come up with a new idea or a different position to break the silence.
When you are angry. Anger significantly increases the likelihood that you are going to say something hurtful or that you're going to regret. It takes a lot of self control, but the best thing you can do when you're angry is to bite your tongue and take ten deep breaths. If that doesn't help, take ten more. Most people view the situation differently once they've calmed down. The same holds true to written communication. Before you hit the send button, sleep on it. You can always hit send the next day if you still feel the situation calls for it, but chances are you won't. Reflection time often changes one's perspective.
When someone is yelling at you. I can think of few situations in a professional setting where yelling is okay, but it happens. A coworker or colleague loses his or her cool and goes off. Your first responses is likely to be to defend yourself or say something to stop the verbal attack. However, silence can be highly effective in these situations. By not reacting at all, your silence can work to calm the situation down and help the other person recognize the inappropriateness of her or his actions.
When you use silence strategically, your words are likely to have more impact and you'll be viewed as a more effective and measured leader. In the words of Mark Twain, "The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause."
© 2013 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout
(Prometheus Books, 2011).