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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.

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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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Feedback Welcome

Welcome to the Management Pocketblog.

This is a blog dedicated to all things management and we want it to reflect the values and style of the management pocketbooks series.  You can read more about the blog at the ‘New Readers’ tab.

What Feedback do you give?

9781906610128 The newly published Feedback Pocketbook opens with a shocking statistic:  33% of British employees consider they rarely or never get feedback on their performance.  If you have an equivalent statistic for any other country, please do let us know in the comments section, below.

So let’s assume that this represents around a third of British managers, failing to offer feedback – at least in a form that it is recognised.  Are you one of them?

Wasted opportunity

Feedback helps us develop and is arguably the most valuable performance-enhancing tool that managers have.  So if you are not giving great feedback, you are losing a noticeable slice of potential performance.  It doesn’t take a big performance loss, when multiplied across all  of a manager’s team, to account for the difference between a profitable and failing business, or a successful or collapsing service.

How big could that difference be?

Bandura and Cervone

In the early 1980s, Albert Bandura and Daniel Cervone conducted experiments with students at Stanford University, on a cycling ergo meter.  They measured the performance of eighty cyclists and then split them into four groups, balanced for gender and ability:

  1. Group A
    were set goals for performance improvement
  2. Group B
    were given no goals, but feedback on their performance
  3. Group C
    got both performance goals and feedback
  4. Group D
    were a control group and got neither goals nor feedback

At the end of a training period, Bandura and Cervone found that the twenty cyclists who had received both clear performance goals and feedback had improved their performance to a higher degree (by a factor of more than 2) than any other group.  Not surprisingly, the control group (D) showed least improvement.  Surprisingly, however, the control group only improved a little less than groups A and B.

Bandura&Cervone

Goal Setting and Feedback are both vital to great performance

So here’s the deal

Our goal

… is to engage in a dialogue with Management Pocketbook readers and anyone else interested in management.  Over the next six months, we’d like to get to at least 100 readers a week, and we want to get comments on most of our posts.

Your feedback

… is more than welcome.  Let us know what you think of our blogs and our books, and contribute your ideas to supplement ours.  Give us information and ideas, and tell us what you want.

Subscribe to this blog, so you don’t miss any of our posts – we look forward to the conversation.

Reference:
Self-Evaluative and Self-Efficacy Mechanisms Governing the Motivational Effects of Goal Systems,
Albert Bandura and Daniel Cervone,
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1983,
Vol 45, No. 5, 1017-1028

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