Silence: A skill and a tool

Whether you’re acting in a leadership role or just having a casual conversation, allowing natural silence to occur can be beneficial.

Have you ever been in a room where the leader of the group asks a question, but no one answers? Then it’s made clear that the leader isn’t going to move on until someone answers that question or responds? It can seem as though you can feel the seconds ticking by and you scramble to think of anything to say that will break that deafening silence.

You’ve probably never thought of that silence as a skill. While a leader doesn’t want to make the group they are working with feel awkward in that silence, they may actually be using the silence as a powerful tool to allow individuals to process the question or reflect on experiences to formulate an answer.

Whether you’re acting in a leadership role or just having a casual conversation, allowing natural silence to occur can be beneficial. The silence in a conversation or dialogue is so often considered to be negative, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. In “The Effective Use of Silence” published in Psychology Today, Alex Lickermann suggests silence can bestow many gifts. Those gifts can include the following.

The ability to listen effectively. Few do it well. Most of us engage in listening only as a way of waiting until it's our turn to speak. If you can't resist thinking about what you want to say when listening, focus instead specifically on being silent. You'll be surprised how much your ability to concentrate will improve. If you can stop focusing on what you want to say when listening (don't worry; it won't go anywhere) and instead concentrate entirely on what's being said to you, silence won't just bring you a new skill; it will bring you new knowledge.

Remember that listening is far more powerful than speaking. You learn nothing by saying something, which by definition you already know. Besides, how often are we really able to influence another's behavior or beliefs by what we say?

A clear view into the hearts of others. Silence gets you out of the way and creates a space others will fill in with themselves. A person's personality becomes apparent in mere hours to days. Assessing a person's character, on the other hand, takes months to years. But people remain themselves at every moment. An offhand comment made when you first meet someone may, in retrospect, be obviously representative of a large character defect (or virtue).

If you employ silence to listen carefully to not only what people say but how they say it, you'll find they'll give themselves away to you constantly and enable you to understand their character far sooner than you would be able to otherwise.

Attractiveness. People want more than anything to be heard and understood and will find anyone who provides them that, feeling powerfully charismatic.

Self-control. Think how much more in control you'd not only appear but actually be if your first response upon hearing or seeing something that sparks a strong reaction in you wasn't to lash out emotionally, but instead to become silent. Silence is a terrific substitute for self-control, not only creating its appearance, but over time and with practice, its substance as well.

Wisdom. When facing a new challenge, making silence your first response gives you a chance to reflect before you speak, increasing the likelihood that what you say and do will be on target, intelligent and useful. Further, silent reflection promotes the appropriate use of what we call in medicine a "tincture of time." If you resist the urge to leap into action at the first moment a problem arises, the problem often fixes itself. In medicine, as in life, sometimes the wisest action is none at all.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you can recognize silence is occurring, challenge yourself to bask in that quiet time rather than trying to fill it with words. Allow yourself to become motivated by the silence and recognize it’s a skill that can be used in so many social situations. Likewise, when you’re in a leadership position, try practicing silence as a way to encourage others to gather their thoughts or reflect on what is being asked or discussed.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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