The Power of Silence

During a day of stirring speeches that were part of the March for Our Lives, I, like many, was most moved by the words of Emma Gonzalez. While her heartfelt words were stirring, I will never forget the four minutes that she stood silently, leaving me and everyone in the audience to think, and feel. Many were moved to tears by the impact of her silence, which she used to illustrate the time it took the shooter to complete his attack.
The unusual communication choice by this remarkable young woman deeply resonated with my experience in my own conversations, and in coaching executives on communication skills. In a world in which it is a challenge to find quiet time and spaces, it is not surprising that we often ignore the power of silence in our personal and professional conversations.                                                                                                                      By allowing silent spaces in our conversations, we create a vastly different experience. We give ourselves and our counterparts time to deeply consider what is being said, and are not thinking about what we wish to say next. And, we are communicating that we really care about and want to understand just as much as we wish to be understood. For many, this idea is counterintuitive; social media has conditioned us to feel uncomfortable without providing or receiving a quick response, and the silence in that non-reactive space can make us feel uneasy.
The good news is that just as we’ve learned to immediately text, tweet, retweet, post on Instagram, etc., we can  learn to do the opposite when speaking with others. To do so requires our conscious commitment to prioritizing understanding, or responding, over reacting. It demands that we focus on the quality and depth of our communication, not the speed of our reaction, or that of our counterparts.                                                                     The benefits of increasing the clarity of our speech and the depth of our understanding in conversations are substantial. In business, corporate culture takes root in the quality of conversations between team members. Strong cultures are characterized by shared commitments; how can team members commit to something they don’t understand? Teams and groups function on a much higher level when the mission is clearly understood by all. In our personal relationships, understanding and being understood by our friends and partners is the glue that holds us together.
So the next time you’re about to engage in a serious conversation at work or at home, I suggest that you commit to allowing for a silent space or two. A space in which you’re laser-focused on what is being said, and what it really means to the person saying it. You and your conversational partner will both greatly benefit from the remarkable power of that silence.


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