Not many people realize that silence is a very powerful communication tool—sometimes even more powerful than nonverbal communication or words. Doubt it? Try this. Look a person in the eye, ask him or her a question, and then wait for a response. Remain silent and simply maintain eye contact and provide your undivided attention. What happens? He or she will talk, elaborate, confess (especially kids), reveal, and otherwise share things we would never have heard had we been the ones talking.
Most of us are stage hogs. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, right? Even when we appear to be showing interest in others by asking questions, we often don’t want to hear the answer. The question is only a tool to start a conversation so we can share our own thoughts or feelings. We don’t ask, “How are you?” because we really want to know. We ask because we want to share how we’re doing.
Mary: Hi Sue! How are you?
Sue: Okay I guess, work is really busy.
Mary: I know what you mean, things are so busy for me at work, too. I’m so overwhelmed. You wouldn’t believe what my boss has heaped on my plate. It’s…
And then Mary spends the next 10 minutes talking about what’s going on in her world.
Silence is a key tool to add to your communication toolbox—especially if you’re a big talker like me. Think about it- if you’re doing all the talking, are you learning anything new? Of course not, because everything you’re talking about is already in your head! When you allow others to talk, that’s when you’re learning. You might learn:
– What your kids are struggling with at school
– What your spouse or significant other dreams for his or her future
– What your customer really wants from you
– And more!
Being silent doesn’t mean giving a slack-jawed, blank-faced stare. I’m advocating “Engaged Silence,” meaning you’re actively involved in the conversation as a listener. It’s the kind of silence that makes the speaker feel truly heard and valued. You’ll provide nonverbal feedback using eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures that tell the speaker you understand what he or she has said. You’ll allow others to have their say, in their own words, and in their own time. You’ll ask questions because you really want to hear the answers, in all their detail.
Here are some tips for using Engaged Silence:
1. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish others’ sentences or add your two-cents worth just because you can. Keep yourself out of it and let the other person have their say.
2. Wait! Just because the speaker stops talking, doesn’t mean it’s your turn. Perhaps he or she is thinking of what to say next, or is trying to find the right words.
3. Use your nonverbals to stay engaged. Look the person in the eye, “respond” with your facial expressions, nod your head, and otherwise let the speaker know that you’re listening and you “get it.”
4. If you must speak, ask questions to solicit more information or detail, or paraphrase the speaker’s words and feelings to verify your understanding. Don’t turn the conversation to yourself or take over. When you feel the urge to “tell,” “ask” instead.
5. When appropriate, take notes to ensure you capture details. Write down questions you want to ask AFTER the speaker finishes. Taking notes helps keep your mind engaged in the conversation, plus it’s very difficult to speak or takeover while you’re writing down what someone else has said.
Being silent may be a challenge at first. However, once you get used to it, you’ll be surprised what you’ll learn about others and they’ll be thrilled to finally have the stage.