Silence may be golden, but it’s also awkward. In our noisy world, long quiet pauses prompt many of us to jump in and fill the void. Instead of fearing silence, though, Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz, authors of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, suggest embracing it.
“Whether we’re talking about auditory noise that decibels in our ears or informational noise from a mass proliferation of information that’s available to us, noise begets more noise,” Marz says. “And then there’s internal chatter, worry, rumination, concern, and planning for the future. We mistake this stress and noise for aliveness.”
In a 2014 study at the University of Virginia, undergraduates were left alone in a sparse room and without cellphones or entertainment for 15 minutes. They were given the option to sit in silence or push a button that administers a painful electric shock. Two-thirds of the men and 25% of the women chose to give themselves a shock as a form of stimulation rather than just sit in silence with nothing to do.
“Awkward silence is a real issue for people,” Zorn says. “When you’re face-to-face with another person or with a group of people, you face what Nietzsche called the horror of the vacuum of space with nothing to say.”
Zorn and Marz point out that our entire economic system is wired toward maximum noise.
“It’s the way we measure GDP,” Zorn says. “A pristine forest doesn’t count as anything for GDP, unless you chop it down and sell the wood for lumber at Home Depot. You can say the same thing about human attention. Moments of quiet, pristine awareness, such as a walk in the woods or time with your kids making or appreciating art doesn’t count as a positive for GDP. Our society and our communal lives are wired for as much noise as possible.”
But silence doesn’t have to be a solemn and solitary activity, according to Marz, who notes, “We as a society have used silence and honored silence in ceremonies, milestones, and cultural events. We want to welcome that back into the foreground of our way of being together.”
Ironically, finding comfort with silence in the workplace starts with more conversation.
“It’s a look at your norms,” Zorn explains. “How do we treat noisy distractions as a group as we operate? Often, there’s an expectation of constant interruption, whether it’s email interruptions [or] notifications. Open office plans often compound these issues.”
The authors suggest trying an ancient Japanese aesthetic principle called Ma. “Ma means empty, negative space,” Zorn says. “Ma also means pure potentiality. On the job, that would mean having reverence for open spaces, honoring them and building them in.”
Ma can be physical, such as having empty spaces in buildings that provide a sense of calm and clarity. And Ma can mean adding space into your day, such as leaving free time between meetings instead of scheduling things back-to-back. Or it can be blocking off time for deep, thoughtful work.
“We need Ma on the job so we have the capacity for listening,” Zorn says.
Use Silence in Meetings
While brainstorming sessions are usually filled with noise, they also offer a perfect opportunity to introduce silence. Zorn suggests adding a minute or two of quiet during the meeting, allowing employees to think before sharing ideas.
Or create a silent brainstorming session with a Post-it note gallery where people write down their ideas and post them on a wall. Then, participants can slowly peruse ideas and vote for the best one.
Silent brainstorming sessions offer new opportunities for intelligence to arrive or be uncovered, which can be especially beneficial to employees who are more introverted.
“Normally, brainstorming deals with the tyranny of the fastest and loudest,” Zorn says. “Giving space allows for reflection and allows for the quieter voices on the teams and groups to come in.”
Use Silence During Conflict
Silence is also a force that can equilibrate anger or tension at work. If people are getting agitated during a meeting, the authors suggest asking for a period of collective silence. The silent pause can help people center and calm themselves before proceeding.
“Silence isn’t forcing a resolution before the group is ready,” Zorn explains. “It’s simply ensuring that people are present and listening. The group silence forces everyone into a place where they have to drop their verbalized positions and arguments and connect to the underlying energy of the shared space.”
Whether it’s during a meeting, a disagreement, or a deep work session, sitting in silence can take courage because it’s uncomfortable.
“We need to be able to be quiet together,” Zorn says. “The experience and power of silence is magnified when it’s shared.”