Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

In conversation, we underestimate the power of silence. Some examples:

  • Your client or customer has just stopped talking but you sense there’s more s/he could say. Would you be more likely to get a response if you remained silent or asked if s/he wanted to say more?  I believe silence is better if only because the person feels less pushed.
  • You’ve just said something. Imagine that the person remained silent for a moment before responding rather than jumping right in. Wouldn't you prefer that? It suggests s/he is digesting what you’re saying or is more interested in learning if you have more to say rather than being eager for you to finish so s/he can say something. Indeed, it’s a useful rule of thumb to wait one second after someone's significant utterance. I must admit that I rarely have the restraint to do so.
  • Your supervisee said he'd get the report to you by Monday when he knew you wanted it sooner. Which do you think would yield more benefit: looking him in the eye in silence or saying, "You know I wanted it by Friday?" The silence conveys your displeasure but with less likelihood of triggering a defensive response or antipathy toward you.
  • You're at a flea market and see an item you like and asked the vendor for his best price. He says, "$20." Do you think you'll get a better response by looking at him disappointedly in silence and starting to turn away or by saying, "Can't you do better than that?" I think the former.
  • Your conversation partner has just said something that angered you. Would you be wiser to respond or to remain silent? Silence lets you cool down and gives the person a moment to reconsider and say something kinder. If you lash back, it’s more likely to ratchet up the tension and to create more heat than light.
  • You’re watching a play. An actor has said something important. His acting partner can jump in or remain silent, looking the person in the eye. Which makes you more eager to hear the response? A pregnant pause yields dramatic tension. That’s useful whether you’re an actor or in conversation.

If you’re uncomfortable allowing a silence for fear it could make you seem stupid or that you’re capitulating to the other person's position, you might say, “May I take a moment to think about what you said?”

The takeaway

Consider more often pulling the Silence Tool out of your tool kit.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Jury Duty, Justice, and the Magic of Silence is a reply by Roni Beth Tower Ph.D., ABPP