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Is Silence a “Dangerous” Tool in Communication?

Is Silence a “Dangerous" Tool in Communication?

Communication theory typically has a lot to say about how we should transmit our messages (in carefully chosen, clear and concise language) and how we should receive messages (with appropriate eye contact, gentle acknowledgement and good attention to words and body language). However, “silence” as a tool within the communication exchange in both transmission and/or receiving rarely rates much more than a passing mention and we are often left with the impression that it is either an afterthought or an accidental occurrence. Perhaps this lack of attention to silence is because most of us are at best ambivalent about its use when trying to communicate effectively and at worst more than a little apprehensive about deploying it (or for very long). Let’s therefore look in more detail at the whole topic of silence and how it is possible to use it both successfully and unsuccessfully.

The dictionary simply defines silence generally as “a lack of sound or noise” and in the particular context of communication it means “a period of time in which people do not talk”. Unfortunately, neither of these definitions are very helpful and they say nothing about when silence can or should be used, how and about what risks may exist in using it (or as our article title says, what “dangers”).

In a two-person conversation, we’d expect silence to follow the transmission of a short message, so as to let the receiver both understand what has been said and then respond either with questions of clarification or to build the conversation further. But even this straight-forward use of silence can lead to several immediate problems such as:

  • The transmitter can talk for too long before allowing a silent “gap” to occur
  • The transmitter may be unclear, meandering, or complex in the delivery of his or her message
  • The transmitter may convey a disconnect between words and body language
  • The transmitter may “jump” into the silence before the receiver has replied (or during the reply)
  • The receiver may not have been paying enough (or even any) attention to the message
  • The receiver may have become distracted or “drifted off” in part of the message
  • The receiver may have been mentally rehearsing their reply to the transmitter

Sadly, these are just a few of the problems that can arise and all can happen even in combination as regular occurrences in many day-to-day conversations. To make matters even worse “silence” may be an unwanted or unwelcome facet to the conversation. For example, silence may

  • Occur in the middle of a message transmission (the transmitter stopping for a variety of reasons)
  • Be left deliberately “hanging” by a transmitter to force a receiver to respond when the transmitter wants the input
  • Extended for long periods of time by the receiver (often conveyed as thinking/reflecting time)
  • Used as a device to signal resistance or non-participation by a receiver (often a passive/ aggressive response)

None of the above outcomes is helpful to the cause of a truly successful two-way communication and we’d be forgiven for thinking at this point that silence is an extremely difficult tool to master and therefore maybe best avoided altogether. However, silence does have a positive contribution to make so let’s now finally turn to how this can and should happen in most situations.

First and foremost, the constructive use of silence in one to one communication is only possible when it is not used as a power play and without any pre-set agenda from either party in the exchange. In other words, silence is most likely to be seen as a positive tool when it is not used to exert any kind of negative influence on the other party or to be avoidant in any way. The converse of this situation then is when silence is used in the conversation to build the relationship, allow quality time for better understanding to occur or to allow more thinking and reflection time for either party who may need it. Naturally this will depend on the type and style of conversation taking place, the topic of discussion and even the quality and depth of the relationship between the two parties conversing. However, in general positive silence is best deployed as follows:

  • When listening to the other party (listening face on, with good eye contact and no words (except the odd “uh huh” perhaps) or any distracting/contradictory body language
  • Immediately after any relatively short statement by either party, allowing enough genuine time for response before continuing
  • Whenever an individual signals it is necessary either by asking for time or more likely by appearing to need it through their body language.

In fact, most individuals who are engaged professionally in communicating one-on-one, such as negotiators, dispute mediators/conflict resolution experts, executive coaches etc. in the business world go further in suggesting that communication quality typically increases significantly as an exchange is slowed down, listening is turned up and silence is much more of a natural feature of the conversation on both sides before a reply occurs. This seems to be almost counter-intuitive in our fast-paced modern communication world but is nonetheless still a great skill to develop, especially in conversations when the exchange is non-transactional or really matters to the parties involved. As a result, silence can indeed be a dangerous tool when misused (what might be called “the silent treatment”) or an extremely helpful one when deployed intelligently and with positive intent (what might be called “golden silence”). We should all therefore be looking for more opportunities for golden silences to occur.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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2 Comments

  1. JD EvelandJune 27, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    I’m sure you don’t mean it as such, Jon, but your emphasis in this discussion on the “sender” and “receiver” as actors can obscure the instantaneous transactions that occur in communication. As the NLP folks say, “you cannot not communicate.” Supplying a period of silence within which another can send a message and expect it to arrive reasonably coherent is as much a positive action as sending the message itself; there’s nothing passive about it. Even if you think that you are passive in your use of silence, it will be interpreted by your receiver as an active act.

    Thus, the use of active silence is complicated by another NLP truism: “the meaning of your communication is the response you get.” There’s no “dictionary definition” for what a period of silence of any given length ought to mean to which we can appeal. Each individual will apply his or her own interpretation to such an act, and it’s pretty much a random exercise as to whether or not their meaning will coincide with yours. It is precisely the fact that the insertion of a period of silence into a communication (whether or not accompanied by a little sigh) equates to the insertion of a word that will be randomly defined by the receiver.

    One additional complication is that the termination of a period of silence is also an active act, separate and apart from any message that may then follow that termination. If I interrupt you, the fact of the interruption will be much more salient to you than any message I subsequently convey; in fact, as you process the interruption, you may not even hear my message.

    In short – you’re quite right that silence is a dangerous part of communication, mostly because of its random nature but also because of its active significance. And yet we use silence every day in every aspect of our lives. Perhaps, like the centipede asked to describe how his feet worked, we might be better off being less analytical and simply marvel that any of us ever manage to communicate anything at all!

  2. Stephen MugfordOctober 30, 2014 at 4:22 am

    This is an interesting piece but I’m not sure I agree with your starting point, Jon. It seems to me that quite a few authors say important things about silence, not least Susan Scott (FIERCE CONVERSATIONS) with her pithy “let silence do the heavy lifting” and Patterson et al (CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS) enable one to distinguish contemplative and healthy silence from sullen or evasive silence … There is also a cultural point here. Americans (and Aussies like me) tolerate silence much less that (say) Scandnavians, where sitting in mutual silence with the occasional word or two is normal and comfortable … We would be writhing by the end of it. 🙂

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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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