You can hear the prejudice in our idiotic idioms: It’s best, we’re told, to get the first word, the last word, and the last laugh–clearly, silence is not something we generally cherish.
“People abhor silence the way nature abhors a vacuum and rush to fill it with the same alacrity,” writes doctor-blogger Alex Lickerman. “Silence feeds our imaginations and provokes all types of anxious conjurations.”
It’s an apt descriptor that literary types attach to silence: pregnant, in that it is laden with potential and sure as hell uncomfortable.
Maybe this is why the biggest extroverts among us can’t bear to allow it to hang in the air. That’s even though the loudest person in the room (just as the highest paid person in the room), is not necessarily the person with the best ideas, as Quiet author Susan Cain told us. Taking either volume of speech or salary as predictors of insight is one of the many reasons that meetings tend to fail–or so the research says.
Yet our understanding of silence–being golden–could stand to be polished.
Silence prompts answers, Lickerman notes:
“As I learned from my experience as a resident, if you can become comfortable enduring the harsh thud of silence once you’ve thrown out a question, training yourself to wait far beyond the point that feels comfortable, someone will crack before you do and try to answer your question.”
This is also something you learn in journalism school: that during an interview you don’t need to fill the space with your questions. If a source finishes her sentence, but doesn’t answer your question, you can let the silence hang–and the elaboration will (most likely) follow.
As Lickerman terms it, keeping silence is a way of acknowledging that we don’t have an exhaustive understanding of existence: “You learn nothing by saying something,” he asserts, since, by definition, you already know what you’re going to say.
In this way, employing silence is a way of training ourselves to be pro-social (which is psychology-speak for a little less selfish and which gets you ahead in your working life). To put it poetically, your silence provides a vessel for the other folks.
Or, more bluntly: “Silence gets you out of the way and creates a space others will fill in with themselves,” Lickerman says.
This is crucial, the good doctor says, because then we pay better attention, “take them in,” if you would. Since the brain can only offer up so much cognitive bandwidth to your experience–that’s your working memory–the way you invest colors your experience.
If you’re talking the whole time, you’ll experience yourself talking. But if you’re listening–like, for real listening, not waiting to talk–then you’ll experience this other person who also experiences reality. In the same way that after an hour of yoga you discover tendons and other subtleties you weren’t aware of at the outset, you’ll begin to notice subtleties in, which reveals their emotional temperature, which allows you, dear reader, to act with greater graciousness given the decision (or criticism) to be made.
And since single interactions are brief but the bonds that form from them are long–and the greatest asset we have in our careers–we’re behooved to shut up with aplomb.