Silence Is Golden: When Not Talking Says Plenty

As a young manager, I measured myself by how much I spoke out. Now older, I measure myself by how often I stay silent.

I enjoy listening to Oldies music. It's relaxing but, surprisingly, can also send my mind off in different directions. So when I heard the 1960s song "Turn, Turn, Turn" by the Byrds it made me think, of all things, about leadership.

The song's lyrics are based on Ecclesiastes 3 and in its verses are a portion which states there is "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak."

In today's world, when we're all working so hard to be heard publicly, or at work or on social media, there is a lot of wisdom in those 10 words. It made me reflect on my own career and how, as a younger manager, I used to measure myself by how much I spoke out. It was only when I was older that I tried (not always successfully) to measure myself more by how often I stayed silent.

I found not only that this often made sense in general but that there were specific instances in which staying silent was even more powerful. Here's a few of them.

Delegating Tasks
Since we're familiar with tasks within our area it's easy as a manager to not only hand off an assignment to a subordinate but also explain in detail how you'd like it done. Obviously, this approach limits your team member's sense of ownership, their freedom to try new approaches, or their ability to learn on the job. It may prove far better to outline what you need to accomplish, what the metrics of success are, and then ask if they have any questions. Then be quiet for a few minutes...it may take them a while to think.

If there are questions, you may want to respond with your own question and then build on their answer. For example, if they wonder aloud, "Who do I need to link up with to accomplish this?" you can turn it around by asking them, "Who do you think it would be important to get information or buy-in from to make this happen?" Let them ponder for a bit and, if they still miss a few you can ask, "Anyone else?" or "What about Joe?" Help them think through the problem themselves.

In Meetings
It's very easy (or at least it was for me) to spend a lot of time in a meeting trying to communicate your point or convince others of the wisdom of your position. Sometimes that is necessary. However, every once in a while you may want to try sitting back, following the conversation, and seeing where it goes. Perhaps the group will end up where you want them to go without your help. Or perhaps you can ask questions that may lead them to consider the same issues you've considered to guide the conversation. This is especially important if you are the most senior person in the room. Subordinates will be looking to see what you are thinking and by tipping your hand early you may preclude other good ideas from being considered. And of course, if you don't say a lot early on then eventually you will be asked for your viewpoint. At that point it may carry more weight than had you spend most of the meeting talking.

An interesting example; George Washington was chosen by the delegates to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Having been the leader most responsible for independence and held in high regard by all Americans it would have been easy for him to direct this critical session. Yet he chose instead to facilitate the conversation in such a way that all could be heard, offering his opinion only when asked. In this way he helped create one of the most important documents in history.

Listening to Presentations
I used to give presentations to a manager who, one slide into the pitch, would start asking questions about things I'd cover later or begin telling me his recommendations before I even got to the agenda chart. Obviously, that makes it hard for the presenter (my way of dealing with this was to put my conclusions and recommendations up front so I'd at least get them out). So, if you're the main audience for a presentation, let the speaker go for at least a few minutes before starting to pepper them with questions (not to mention telling them what their conclusions should be).

Making a Presentation
Staying silent during a presentation seems counterintuitive but there are times when you must, if there's an important conversation occurring or when someone is making a good point. Allow your presentation to be more dialogue than monologue...it'll be more engaging during your talk and more effective in convincing the audience.

Also, sometimes a pause, a short silence, is powerful when performing public speaking, as this great little article illustrates.

The most important time to go silent? It's when you are trying to convince an executive to follow your recommendation or a customer to buy your product. Once they've agreed, then stop talking. I've seen countless internal and external "sales pitches" go wrong when the presenter kept talking after they "got the order."

Interviewing Candidates
I was always puzzled that some folks spent much of the time of an interview telling the candidate about the company and the job instead of asking questions, listening quietly, and then asking follow-up queries. As a general rule, after outlining the interview structure to the candidate, I'd allocate 75% of the session to asking questions. That left more than enough time to sell the candidate on the position and lay out what would happen next in the process.

So, that's a few suggestions for when refraining from speaking may make sense. And, of course, that's not to say one should never speak up. As the song goes, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

[Image: Flickr user Ben Sutherland]

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3 Comments

  • Tracy Kenny

    Mark thanks for this - I find it bizarre and perplexing that there are so few comments. I don't think it's because people are exercising silence either!

    You're discussing issues which are common such as engagement, giving people space for their own stories, facilitating a group instead of directing it. I often say "you'll never get better buy in than when it's their own idea." It feels like people are uncomfortable with the idea of using silence as a tool to those those ends... speaking up is what has got them where they are today, and it takes an enormous leap of confidence and courage--and putting the point before their own position--in order to shut up and be still.

    I have often wanted to write on the topic and haven't had a good enough grasp on it--it is a philosophical and almost metaphysical space people seem to be frightened of. Silence leaves a situation open and bare, and it's frightening, and probably the most powerful and differentiating move we can make. Thank you again, I'll look forward to reading more of your stuff.

  • Erin Isselmann

    I call this the "EF Hutton" effect.  All great reminders and all about self-awareness, something we all need to keep in mind in life and in business.