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The active role of silence

It's kind of Zen-like to say this, but one of the most important parts of any conversation is the silence. Silence can serve many functions in a conversation and how you manage it determines your level of sophistication in communication. Here are some points to keep in mind about silence in communication.

1. Allowing silence in a conversation puts pressure on the other person.
Why? Because it's conventional in US society not to allow any sort of extended silence in a conversation. It is common in some cultures to do this, but not in the US, and this use of silence is one of the things that can cause multicultural strain.

For instance, in some cultures, if you are a young person and want to talk with a person to talk with a person of authority, you are expected to approach them and wait to be recognized. You aren't supposed to speak until you are acknowledged. This sort of silence is a sign of respect. It's akin to, "Children should be seen and not heard," if you remember that phrase from long ago.

However, in conversation between two peers and equals, it's expected both parties will contribute to the conversation, and there will no glaring silences. If there are any, it causes discomfort -- in some cases, even physiological pain.

This is one tool that some therapists use. Allowing silence to exist between the therapist and the client, put pressures on the client to say something. This is also a tool investigators use. When you're subjected to this sort of silence, it feels like pressure, and you're likely to blurt something out! And it can often be the one thing you don't want to say.

Therefore some people in power use this ploy, such as an interviewer. An experienced interviewer may let a silence hang, just to see how the person being interviewed conducts him or herself.

2. Silence can indicate hostility or disagreement.
While it's almost never an indication of indifference, silence can indicate that the other person is having negative emotions. When we experience anger, fear, or embarrassment, our thinking brain shuts down. We sit there fuming, unable to speak. Enraged and unable to find words. Afraid and scared speechless.

Some people are completely "flooded" by such emotions. Think of a teenager, for instance. They are prone to withdraw into sullen silence rather than using constructive discontent techniques, talking it out, and keeping the connection going.

3. Silence can indicate profoundness, such as respect, awe or horror.
Sometimes when we're listening to someone else, we hear something that leaves us speechless because it really goes beyond words. Listening to someone talk about a dreadful trauma they've endured, or a beautiful, almost-sacred interaction with another human being, or a description of an awesome natural event such as a sunset or a volcano eruption are examples. Somehow when we listen to such things, the ordinary "Oh" and "Wow" and "That's awesome" don't seem enough, and so we fall silent.

4. Silence can indicate contemplation.
The more introverted your communication partner, the more likely they will think before they speak. Extraverts discover what they're thinking and how they feel by talking. Introverts figure it all out inside their own head and heart before giving voice to it.

5. Silence can be intentional rudeness.
Because of the nature of normal conversation in the US, allowing an extended silence can be perceived as rudeness, and even meant that way. Refusing to reply to the other person is a way of ignoring them.

6. Silence can create a listening space.
When you are profoundly listening to someone, you create an open space for them to talk that's almost palpable. Good listeners know how to do this, and it can be learned. It's an openness that you transmit through nonverbal means. Study emotional intelligence and nonverbal communication, and you'll pick up on these cues better.

For instance, if you really are giving your undivided attention to someone else, your pupils will widen. This is a sign that you're willing to "let it all come in," in the same way that opened pupils allow more light to come in.

Our pupils expand when we see something we like, and contract when we want to shut something out - thus the "slanted pig eyes" of someone who's furious. If you're not mindful of this, it's completely automatic (unconscious) and so reveals a lot to the other person who is savvy about it. However, with practice you can bring it more under mindful control.

You can learn to give this sort of eye contact to someone intentionally. It's part of knowing EQ and being mindful. And what a gift! It says, "Open up. I'm here. I'm listening. I want to hear what you have to say, and to understand."

7. Silence can indicate empathy.
Silence can be an indication of empathy. When we are really tuning in to how the other person is feeling about what they're saying, we're listening more to the tone of their voice, cadence and speed rather than the actual words, and so replying with words may not be the attuned response.

We indicate this to the other by being slow to respond and not jumping in to words. Sometimes sounds are more attuned... a murmur, a sigh, sucking in the breath in shock, soothing, cooing sounds, clucking, or shaking the head and going uh, uh, uh. Similarly, we use the sound "hmmm" when we are deep in thought contemplating what the other has said.

Excellent communicators:

  • Can allow silence when it's effective or called for
  • Avoid being pressured into "spilling" when silence is used manipulatively
  • Offer silence as a gift or sign of respect
  • Interpret the silence of others appropriately
  • Understand the way other people and other cultures use silence
  • Mindfully regulate the use of silence in a conversation
  • Are comfortable with silence and understand its many uses.

The take-home point
If you want to become an excellent and effective communicator, study the uses of silence. When we choose to allow silence, and what we do when it's presented to us, tests our communication abilities.

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