Last week I was speaking at a convention in Florida and when I returned to Dallas, I realized I left my voice in Florida. Hope it had a great time on the beach! For two days, I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. For those who know me, I am certain you are laughing and thinking this must have been a VERY challenging situation. When possible, I would squeak or whisper, but not much more in the way of conversation. In meetings,  I would send emails, respond via Chat Box, or make unusual hand gestures to ask questions or share ideas. At one point I just gave up and shut my mouth. I realized that listening and silence are highly underrated. I had often heard the phrase “silence is golden” and upon further investigation found that the first mention of this phrase came from ancient Egypt. The original proverb translated in the 1600’s read, “speech is silver; silence is golden” and the Tremeloes recorded the song in 1964. The communication style I was forced to embrace provided many insights that are applicable in everyday communication and when providing feedback, coaching, counseling.

People are uncomfortable with silence. I started conversations in a “Garbo-like” voice or a whisper but over time that was difficult, and I started to type questions or comments. It took a moment to write down my thoughts but eventually, I put together coherent questions or sentences. In most situations, people were not comfortable with the silence waiting for me to type a response. They would fill in the gap, answer their own question, or provide insightful information that I might not have learned had I been interacting in a verbal dialogue. People typically share their “top of mind” or surface answer first and then the real ideas or input lie beneath the surface. Losing your voice may be literal or brought on by fear of rejection, judgement, self-analysis, and a host of other emotions. We talk ourselves into and out of sharing ideas for fear we will be judged as a result. If the idea or thought is not good, will the other person think I don’t “get it”? If the idea is good, will I look cocky and “show up” the other person? If the idea is “out there” will they think I am “weird”? You get the picture.

When people experience the discomfort of silence, they start digging beneath the surface and provide more information, typically how they really feel and what they really think. These “under the surface” thoughts and ideas guide our behavior in most situations. In my experience, these thoughts eventually bubble to the surface. How do you know when this has occurred? Think back to conversations where you said, “I did not know you felt that way, I wish you would have said something”! or “That is a great idea, why didn’t you tell me”? If you have experienced this, you may have had the opportunity in an earlier conversation to stop and listen? Observe if this happens more frequently with certain people on your team. This is an opportunity to go to them and tell them that their feedback is valuable so encourage them to share their ideas more openly. In discussions, you may also want to ask them if they have any input and feedback, this indicates trust and value.

Whispers diffuse. This week when I could speak, I could not talk above a whisper. In all cases, the person I was speaking to would mirror my voice and speak more softly. The conversations seemed to be more calm, compassionate, and productive. Both parties were more efficient in their desire to make every “word count” and to play well with others. Challenging tones or elevated voices will rarely come out of this type of interaction. This is a great technique to use in conversations when the person you are talking to becomes defensive. I have often been in coaching conversations that start to become tense and I immediately speak in a softer voice. This diffuses the energy to allow discussion to foster problem solving

Be present and observe. I participated in a meeting and again started in a whisper. I quickly became a scribe. I took the opportunity to observe body language, pauses, breath patterns, etc. Here is an example of what I witnessed.

A meeting participant was engaged with their phone, email, and text while listening to the conversation. They would participate yet would multi-task, by offering input while staring at their phone and sending messages. At one point, we started to discuss the creation of a feedback process and how to train managers to ensure consistency in coaching, documentation, etc. This person put down their phone as the topic “caught their attention”. I wrote a note and slid it across the table, it said “Why is this topic so important to you”? They proceeded to tell me about some employee relations issues and terminations that had recently occurred. They were very passionate and stated their goal was to protect the leaders of the company. They were afraid that the situations were not handled well and that  problems would surface in the future. They were correct, the problems were not handled well! This one question shifted our priorities. Now we are focused on developing a handbook, a feedback and documentation process, and providing training for managers. Had this been a “normal” conversation, I may have missed them putting down their phone and the significance of that gesture.

When you sit back and observe, you notice the subtle changes that are indicators of the real feelings. You have probably heard of the 55/38/7 rule; 55% of communication is non-verbal (what you see), 38% is vocal (tone, inflection, verbal clarity), and 7% is words (messages). Given these numbers, it is important to pay attention to change in posture, eye contact, focus, breath patterns (agitation, calmness), etc. When you see a non-verbal response, that may be an indicator. If you notice a person looks to the side, rolls their eyes, smirks, or smiles, you might say,

  • “I sense that you have a thought about what I just said.”
  • “I noticed that you seem a bit agitated.
  • “I see that you appear pleased with the outcome just discussed.”

The person may say, “Yes, that is correct.” or “No, I meant this.” Either way you have enhanced the level of communication and interaction.

In a feedback or coaching session, I am aware that I do not have all the answers or information and will often ask, “What led you to do this”? After asking the question, I take out the invisible duct tape, put it over my mouth, stop talking, listen, and observe. This provides me an opportunity to view non-verbal communication, listen to the tone, and gather information that I may not have previously known. The result is  clarity and a richer understanding that impacts engagement and the relationship.

Truly, silence is golden.