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The Power of Silence

‘Silence is a powerful, ambiguous medium of communication’ says Seán Mistéil in the new edition of the Communicator’s Pocketbook.


It is well worth looking at how to use silence to your benefit.  For a little fun, let’s start with its ambiguity.

A Man for All Seasons

If you haven’t seen the play or the excellent 1966 movie with Paul Schofield and Robert Shaw, then it is well worth looking out for.  At the trial of Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell is prosecuting:

Cromwell: Now, Sir Thomas, you stand on your silence.

More: I do.

Cromwell: But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. Let us suppose we go into the room where he is laid out, and we listen: what do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing; this is silence pure and simple.

But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it, and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence.
That would betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak! …

More: …  the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”.
If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened,
you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.

Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it?
Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?

More: The world must construe according to its wits;
this court must construe according to the law.

This edited extract from the wonderful text by Robert Bolt shows just how slippery silence is.  And powerful: in this trial, More’s life is at stake.

Use the Power of Silence

When I speak, do you listen?  I mean, do you really listen?  What most of us do is half listen; part of me is listening to you, while the other part is listening to myself, as I plan out what I am going to say next.

If we are arguing, I may not even hear your point; as I decide how I am going to respond to what I expected you would say in response to my point.  If we are chatting, I don’t really listen to your story of how upsetting yesterday was, because I am deciding whether to start my story with today’s journey to work, or yesterday’s argument in the supermarket.

Instead, take the time to really listen.  The risk we feel is that if we don’t plan our next comment, the other person will think us slow, dim-witted, weak in argument.

I suggest that this is not so.  What does that silence betoken?  Perhaps it says:

  • I really listened and am thinking about what you said
  • Your comment was profound enough for me to have to think about my reply
  • I am a thoughtful person

And if I am comfortable with silence, and you are not, who will fill that silence with more words?  You will.  In a debate, this will be when you weaken your argument, in a sales call this will be where you give something away, in an argument this will be when you start to feel you are losing.

So here’s the deal

Practise listening with 100% attention

Practise holding your silence

Practise setting aside your prejudices about what my silence may mean.  It may not mean I am angry, or I am confused, or I am deaf, or I am day-dreaming, or I am upset.

It may just be silence pure and simple.

Other Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

And coming soon:

  • Body Language
  • Handling Resistance
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5 thoughts on “The Power of Silence

  1. I specialise in training trainers and subject-matter experts to be trainers and one of the biggest challenges new trainers have is to understand the power of silence. They tend to want to fill the air with words, whether they are meaningful or not, particularly when learners are concentrating on an activity or exercise.

    One young woman selected by her company as an internal IT systems expert who attended one of my workshops to become a trainer, was so vocal that during her assessment feedback session we decided to summarise her action points into two simple phrases. ‘Shut up’ and ‘Slow down’. She still remembers them because she went on to be a great trainer and actually married my son. She is about to give birth to their second child in 18 months so I think that silence is something that she will long for very soon 🙂

    Jooli Atkins

  2. Silence is truly golden. I like the Cromwell reference. I am reading Wolf Hall at the moment (bit half heartedly-it’s very heavy in all senses) and she captures perfectly his ‘slippery’ use of language.
    Knowing when to be quiet is a most powerful tool; it can convey both respect and contempt as Cromwell showed!

  3. Great blog post, Mike. Just reflecting on the idea of the ‘uncomfortable silence’. As a former teacher I used it to good effect when needing students to ‘own up’ to something, as in: ‘I think there’s something you have to tell me, isn’t there?’ followed by ‘uncomfortable silence’ and eventual confession (often of something quite different than I’d expected!).

    Research has shown (Mary Budd Rowe) that teachers leave very little time between asking the class a question and choosing a pupil to answer (often less than a second!). Pupils need thinking time to give considered answers. Equally, teachers tend to react to pupils’ responses very quickly without giving themselves time to interpret the response and consider how to reply. Teachers are now encouraged as part of their training to build in ‘wait time’ and ‘think time’ in class discussions.

  4. Great blog post – I guess the difficulty with practising silence is that some people never stop talking, and so you never get a chance to put your point across. But strategic silence and focused listening are essential for clear communications.

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