In a chat few years back, my manager, Peter, told me about a commercial negotiation he won just by being silent. Peter and his negotiating team were on a conference call with the other party negotiating a contract amount and payment terms. Midway through the heated discussion, everyone suddenly went silent. The negotiating team looked at Peter and hand-signalled him to say something to break the silence. Peter scribbled something on a piece of paper and showed it to his team: “who speaks first, loses”. Obeying Peter, everyone went silent. Not long afterwards, a voice came from the other end saying: “OK, we agree with your terms!”
That story changed my perception of the power of silence. I used to associate silence with some ‘unpopular’ characteristics like shyness, introversion or even low self confidence. I was wrong. Silence is a powerful technique to focus, bring out new ideas and innovate. By the way, if you still think introversion is rather an ‘unpopular’ characteristic, think again (see Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts video. Just take note of what you do or think of when you are silent, you will find that you usually come out with something useful. Have you noticed, for example, that many people turn off their car radio when they drive into a new neighbourhood and look for a certain address?
Silence, or rather attentive silence, is a necessity to learn or practice many actions and skills. If for nothing else, you need to be silent in order to be a good listener. Pick up any good book on communication strategies and you will almost certainly find a section about the importance of listening effectively, listening to learn and understand; not listening to prepare a response.
By staying attentively silent, you get much more than just being a good listener. You hear a lot and learn more; or as Dr. Alex Lickerman put it beautifully in his article The Art of Silence “silence won’t just bring you a new skill; it will bring you new knowledge”. When you are attentively silent in a conversation you don’t just hear their words, you also ‘see’ their tone and observe their body language; you feel their emotions and appreciate their excitement or frustration. Such observations will provide you with heaps of useful knowledge which you would have missed out if you weren’t attentively silent. Attentive silence is also a necessity for many skills other than good listening. Imagine a heart surgeon doing the gangnam style while operating on an open heart, or someone practicing meditation while humming Michael Jackson’s Beat it.
Give it a try. Stay silent for some time and take note of the thoughts and ideas that come to you. After all, doesn’t your spouse or partner make ‘you’ do what ‘they’ want just by giving you the silent treatment!