Silence!

The longest days of winter are often a trigger for introspection. Introspection provides time for evaluating what has worked and what hasn’t, it provides time to consider the path you are on and to decide to change that path. As importantly introspection provides an opportunity to navigate feelings, issues, and words at a conversation level. Silence is an enabler for introspection at many levels. Silence is the space between sounds and other inputs. Silence can happen or be manufactured. Silence is powerful because it both allows thought in yourself and evokes action in others at exactly the same time. Silence at the level of a conversation can have multiple benefits.

Silence enables listening – simply put if you are talking you are not listening. Close your mouth and listen to what is being said. One of the hardest lessons of interviewing I have learned from the past 11’ish years of the Software Process and Measurement Cast is not listening just to know when it is your turn to talk or to listen just to generate the next question. Both are destructive to understanding.

Nature abhors a vacuum and in a conversation, nature seems to abhor silence. IN order to fill the vacuum people continue talking or find other mechanisms to fill the gap between words. Just because someone has made a statement, asked a question or briefly stopped talking does not mean you must fill the gap. Silence will often evoke a refinement of the question or more context to a statement that has been made. As a coach, I will often wait to see whether the person I am interacting with will continue after a question. What comes next often helps the person outline their own answer or adds context to the question they are really asking. One of the classic quality tools is tilted the 5 Whys. The technique suggests that it takes asking why five times to get to a root cause. A more important realization is that rarely are the first words from someone’s mouth really what is being asked. Silence can be a tool to get the person to provide a richer context.

You probably are what you say. The words an individual uses to describe their situation, those around them and themselves are as defining as their actions. Listening to the what is being said both at a macro and nuanced level provides knowledge that can help the listener regardless of the role they are playing. For example, as an interviewer, listening can help me recognize which interviewees are nervous about being recorded which allows me to take action to help mitigate the situation.

People like people with whom they can talk about themselves. It is more than a truism that individuals find anyone that allows them to be heard and understood to have a magnetic appeal or charm.  Not everyone is born with charisma, however, in The Harvard Business Review (June 2012) article Learning Charisma, suggests that charisma can be learned. Part of learning to be charismatic, to connect with people is to learn to be present and to have good listening skills – silence is a critical part of listening.

Silence is a powerful tool to help individuals to process what is being said. Training yourself to be silent and listen is not easy. A policy of silence before action allows for a response to reflect wisdom. When coaching and mentoring, silence allows for the possibility that the speaker can solve their own problem which is far more empowering than having someone else solve their problem. Silence needs to be a tool for every true coach, mentor or leader.