Why Silence Is Golden in a Noisy World

Leaders are often judged by what they say or do. But sometimes silence is their most effective leadership tool.

So, I don’t have much to say this week — which, as funny as it sounds, is sort of the point of this column.

Even after I allowed my column a one-week hiatus following the three-day Memorial Day weekend, I still found myself in front of my computer with nothing particularly inspiring to write about. It wasn’t that it was a slow news week (is there ever a slow news week these days?) or that I hadn’t set aside time to prepare or research. In a typical week, I’m deciding between two or three topics to weigh in on, and I usually prepare those topics over the course of the week prior. By the time Wednesday arrives, I’m usually all set to pen something of value.

But, for whatever reason, this week I got nothing. Nada. Zilch.

The rest of this writing, then, will seem fully ironic — because it is. You see, in my quest to find something to say to our loyal Talent Economy readers this week, then deciding I had nothing of value to present, I discovered the subject of this column: the power of silence.

Silence is overrated in business, especially these days. We often talk about great leaders for the great things they say or do — not about the times they didn’t say or do anything. Employees are motivated by an enthusiastic and passionate CEO speech at a companywide meeting. We work hard because we want to create something tangible, and we spend bountiful amounts of time crafting our message and developing our individual behaviors and communications skills to succeed.

We live in an age where content is king. Whatever field you’re in, you need to be considered a thought leader to be successful. Create a website, write blogs, give speeches and presentations. Internally, within the offices of most corporations, people feel the need to speak up in meetings, be visible by talking, communicating your ideas, developing relationships, gaining influence through your content and expertise.

In essence, the conventional wisdom in business and leadership today is that people need to say a lot to be effective. Inaction is considered foolish or, worse, lazy. There are many instances where this is the right thinking. For instance, I can’t communicate the point of this column if I don’t write it. Even though I’m advocating for silence, I can’t necessarily convey that without telling you. On a more practical level, communication is indeed powerful, so people should embrace it and work hard to become good at it.

But within the realm of being a good communicator is knowing when not to communicate at all. Consider a meeting where a CEO or meeting leader presents the group with a question for discussion. We’ve all been in this situation where the leader offers the question and then … silence. It usually doesn’t take long — seconds, I bet — for the leader to chime in and fill the space with their own viewpoint, hoping that will spark conversation among others. Sure, in many cases, this might work. Others will eventually join, and it might even turn into a successful and lively conversation that leads to the desired result. However, although silence in that situation may be painful, it’s not necessarily bad. Leaders in those situations should let that silence breath. Not only will others eventually chime in, but they will be more likely to offer ideas not influenced by your initial comments delivered to kill the silence.

It’s true, too, in negotating. Remaining silent while the other person talks, even when they’ve seemingly finished their thought, might lead them to fill the silence with something that puts you in a more powerful negotiating position. Silence in a negotiation, as many experts in the field have pointed out, might also suggest you don’t necessarily need the deal as much as the other person, therefore giving you the upper hand. Seeming too ready to talk might create the impression you’re on the more desperate end of the deal.

Lastly, consider the value of silence when giving a presentation. Communications experts commonly talk about the value of strategic pauses in a speech. Think about the times you’ve heard a great speech. I almost guarantee there were instances when the presenter delivered a line followed by a great deal of silence before he or she continued. There’s a power to such a strategy.

The bottom line is that in an environment that is constantly preaching the virtues of being an active communicator, silence is a powerful tool. Not only will it help create more impact to the words that came before it, but it will allow those you’re trying to communicate with to really take in and think about what you just said. Other times, remaining silent pushes others to fill the void, which may be what is necessarily to accomplish the ultimate goal of the engagement.

So there you have it: almost 900 words on the power of being silent, of saying nothing.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.