Silence is thunderous with meaning. It’s riotously potent, stridently present.
I love silence. I believe we should all speak up more for silence. And listen out for it too. We can do more with silence.
I’m not being deliberately eccentric or contrary – a communications professional speaking up for silence. All of us already know the simple truth about the power of silence. That truth is wrapped up in timeworn phrases like silence speaks louder than words, silence is golden and deafening silence.
And I’m not claiming to have uncovered new terrain. It’s just that silence often gets overlooked as a force because it is, well, silent.
When it comes to communication, silence offers many pathways. Let’s saunter down two of them.
Have you ever worked anywhere where the people in charge resolutely and unthinkingly withhold information from their employees? Of course you have! We all have.
The end result of this type of carry on, if it happens over a reasonable amount of time and for no deeply sound and self-evident reason, is as predictable as it is brutal: trust dies.
Silence from leaders is not quiet. It is LOUD. People notice silence. When organisations choose not to share the good, the bad and ugly about what’s going on, we just invent our own. And it’s often cruelly negative, and not simply about the organisation but also about those in charge of it.
Leaders must share. Everything they possibly can. Bring everyone into your confidence. Everyone. Be inclusive. Be strongly vulnerable about the risks and challenges. And celebrate proudly, and with wild joy, the good stuff and those who have brought it to life.
When leaders do not share, when they stay silent, the unspoken message is this: I don’t trust you or believe in you. I don’t see you or want to be seen by you.
The response from employees rebounds with ruinous force. Trust vanishes, hauling deflated motivation and crushed passion alongside it down the stairs and out the door.
There is another kind of silence – a good kind. It also involves staying quiet. Silence is not in itself a problem. It’s all in the intention. Silence can be profoundly productive and uplifting.
This is the silence of deep listening.
Listening deeply involves clearing the mind of your own thoughts with the concentrated intention of truly hearing what another person has to say from their own perspective.
Deep listening is not about agreeing or disagreeing. It’s not even about being persuaded. It’s about creating a space (inside your own mind) where alternative perspective (those of other people) can temporarily find shelter.
Deep listening is humble, nodding at the certainty of one’s own partial understanding of the world. It is an admission of incompletion about oneself and an acknowledgement of potential insight by others. Deep listening is kind.
When we listen deeply, the unspoken message is this: I do trust you and believe in you, not because I necessarily agree with you but because I believe you think what you think on the back of the unique experiences you have had. Also, I see you and I want to be seen by you which is why I am standing here – for a short time – in full attention of you and your words.
It’s surprisingly easy to do as well. When you’re listening to someone concentrate totally on the words you are hearing and the body language you are witnessing. Let it absorb you, utterly.
If you’re losing focusing deliberately notice the colour of the other person’s eyes. If you do it with enough attention your focus will return. They will detect it too. You can se it in their eyes. It’s a wonderful moment of connection.
Feeling seen and heard in the embrace of another’s silent consideration is immensely transformative.
So please, do give some silent applause for silence.
Properly understood, silence can be consciously crafted to foster deeper belonging and connection. Both when it is set aside and when it is mightily embraced.