Growing up we’re frequently told by our parents and teachers to “speak up” and “let ourselves be heard.” While you should speak up if something is bothering you or if you have something meaningful to say, these instructions serve to idealize the assertive person who’s perceived as the life of the party, or the successful go-getter.
While there is nothing wrong with being assertive and talkative, there’s a problem when those people have nothing to say. It may sound like an oxymoron, but think how many business meetings have sputtered because a colleague spoke at at length without adding anything of value. How many times have you finished saying something, only to have the other person immediately launch into their own monologue? It’s as if they were merely waiting for their turn to talk instead of actually considering what you had to say.
So why do people do it? It’s because we fear silence, says Amber Wright, an L.A.-based communications expert and coach.
“Silence is awkward for many people,” says Wright, because we are seldom taught how to appreciate it. She believes society values extroversion and talkativeness. “While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she points out, “it does reinforce the notion that to be quiet or silent is awkward and less appealing, which isn’t true at all, but makes people uncomfortable.”
Learning to be comfortable with your own silence can have a number of productivity benefits, according to several public speaking experts. To test the truth of that, I decided to embrace silence for a week. I spoke less in meetings to give myself the time to really formulate something worth saying, and let others do the majority of talking in conversations. Here were the results.
After one round-table discussion about the publishing industry during an event I was invited to speak at, someone from the audience came up to me and said, “You’re such a confident speaker!” This shocked me, because I was actually nervous. Yet because I took the time to pause and actively formulate my thoughts before speaking, resulting in up to five to 10 seconds worth of silence on stage for each pause, people in the audience construed this as my having more confidence in what I was saying.
“This doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Wright, when I report my findings to her. “Speakers that are able to embrace silence, instead of filling it with vocalized pauses such as, ‘um,’ ‘uh,’ ‘like,’ and ‘you know,’ come across as more confident and credible to the audience,” she notes. “Learning to take your time, pause, and then respond or speak, demonstrates that you care about what you’re saying.”
One well-known speaker who came across with the utmost confidence was Steve Jobs. During his presentations, he frequently paused at length as he paced around the stage, embracing silence and giving focus to his thoughts, making the audience hang on to every word he said.
I noticed that after embracing silence, when I did speak, people seemed to listen to me more intently, too. Wright says this is the result of what is known as speaking with intention. It’s the very opposite of what most people do when they rush to reply to the boss in a business meeting.
“Talking less and embracing silence are non-verbal communication strategies that also serve as conversation regulators,” she says. “As seen by your observation, there are benefits to turning down the volume on mindless chatter every now and then,” Wright explains. Speaking with intention encourages the audience to then listen with intention, she points out. “It’s a conversation win-win all around.”
Speaking less at events and in meetings, as well as in conversations with friends, made me more empathetic toward others. Not taking their pauses as the starting gun for me to start rambling my thoughts enabled me to really listen to what others were saying. I noticed I had more time to think through things in my head. I also observed that people returned this empathy in kind.
“We often listen to respond, instead of listening to connect,” says Wright. “People over-talk or ramble because they want to be seen,” she explains.
“When we take the spotlight off of ourselves and shine it on the audience, if gives them a chance to be heard. When feel heard, we feel valued. The best way to demonstrate that you care about others around you is to listen to them with intention and sincerity.”
How many times have you put your foot in your mouth because you started rambling? During the week I embraced silence, I didn’t have one instance where I said something dumb, potentially offensive, or gave too much information. This last point is particularly beneficial during business negotiations. Unskilled negotiators will give their positions away with random chatter because they aren’t comfortable sitting across the table from someone in silence.
Says Wright: “There’s a saying that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. And that’s so that we can listen more and talk less. We’d see much more civility and connectedness on-and offline if more people were willing to listen more than they speak.”
After only a week, the benefits of speaking less are clear. Yet trying to still your mind and become comfortable with silence is something people often go about in the wrong way. Instead of focusing on the quiet, focus on what the other person is saying, and silence will come naturally.
“The best tips I have for people seeking to become comfortable with speaking less are to slow down and listen,” says Wright. “It sounds simple, but active listening requires effort most people are not willing to make. When we practice active listening, the focus shifts from ourselves and onto the other person. By default, then, we slow down in conversation, pay closer attention, and respond thoughtfully and quietly.”