Leaders use many forms of power to achieve their goals. They might use words, directives, charisma, or rules. In less ideal situations, they use domination, bravado, violence, or faux strength. Leaders who aim to be more conscious might use collaboration, a compelling vision or mission, or motivation. One of the most seldom used forms of power, however, is the power of silence.
The Discomfort of Silence
For many people, silence can be uncomfortable. When silent by ourselves, we come face to face with our thoughts and feelings. When silent with others, we are confronted by just being instead of doing. In either case, we want to avoid this discomfort and find ways to distract. The downside is that we miss out on opportunities. We fail to leverage the power of silence and, in doing so, cut off access to a great source of power.
When we use the power of silence, we have the opportunity to:
- Pause from daily life
- Notice how we’re doing
- Reflect on deeper truths
- Increase awareness of what’s going on around us
- Access wisdom
These benefits can help us solve problems, experience meaningful connection, access creativity, connect to the bigger picture, recognize wants and needs, align with purpose, and be more resilient, peaceful, and fulfilled.
Talking: The Enemy of Silence
One of the biggest enemies of silence is talking. Ironically, talking is a common Achilles heel of leaders. Some talk because they like hearing their own voice. Others talk because they are uncomfortable with silence. In some cases, talking is a way to avoid intimacy and being present with other people. For many leaders, it’s simply a habit developed over time and culturally reinforced: many people spend a lot more time talking than listening or being silent. Regardless of the reason, talking can cut us off from our personal power and effectiveness as leaders.
Consider some common workplace scenarios:
- A manager has a performance review with a direct report. The majority of the conversation involves the manager giving feedback, direction, and suggestions.
- Senior leaders brief their people on a new initiative. Over the course of an hour, they spend fifty minutes outlining details, telling personal stories that relate to the reason behind the initiative, giving directives, and sharing the consequences of not following the initiative. Although they allow ten minutes for questions, they only have time for one question because they spend most of that time responding with long answers and even more stories.
- A leader asks their team for ideas about a new solution. Almost immediately after asking, the leader proceeds to interrupt, argue, discount ideas, or move on before speakers even have a chance to finish their thoughts.
In all three examples, the conversations were one-sided. There was no room for hearing other perspectives, ideas, or needs. Solutions were handed down instead of co-created, resulting in less ownership and potential buy-in. Most of the information presented went over people’s heads, as they could only take in so much before their minds wandered elsewhere. People didn’t feel seen, valued or, in some cases, even needed at all.
The irony in such situations is that leaders then wonder why they struggle to get people engaged, bought-in, self-motivated, self-directed, creative, taking ownership, and not improving. They then might even blame others instead of noticing their own contribution.
Leveraging the Power of Silence
When leaders learn to embrace and use silence, new possibilities emerge. By providing spaciousness, reflective questions, and listening, there is room for something different to occur.
Using silence can take many forms, such as:
- Listening to someone speak without interrupting, commenting, correcting, or fixing the person
- Asking questions and allowing as much time as it takes for the other person to answer
- Allowing enough time for groups to ask questions without ending before everyone has a chance to ask questions
- Letting someone finish a thought, even if they pause while speaking
- Taking time each day to do nothing
- Going for a walk or spending time in nature without any distraction
- Using powerful questions to help people figure out their own solutions instead of taking over, giving direction, or telling them how you’d do it
In the examples above, performance reviews could consist of asking the direct report what their goals are, where they’re struggling, what their ideas are for improving, and what they need. Briefs could focus on sharing the “what” and engaging the group to come up with the “how.” Meetings could allow time for free brainstorming and sharing of ideas without interruption.
One senior leader I coached was quick to fill the silence with his direct reports by telling them what they should do. Instead of waiting for answers, he became impatient. If they didn’t seem to get what he was telling them or couldn’t do it fast enough, he’d take over and do the work for them. He was frustrated and wondered why his people weren’t developing.
As he explored his pattern of avoiding silence by being directive and taking over, he saw how much he was the cause of their issues. He started listening more, asking questions, letting his direct reports come up with solutions, and allowing them to struggle with figuring things out on their own. Not only did they start taking initiative and becoming more independent in their jobs, his own stress went way down and he had more time and energy for his own work. By using the power of silence, he gave ownership back to his people and provided the space for them to find their way.
To cultivate your own use of silence, consider the following questions:
- How do you typically respond to silence?
- In a typical conversation, how much time do you spend talking instead of listening?
- What strategies can you implement to use silence more often?
- Instead of telling someone what to do, what questions could you ask to help them discover their own answers?
- What would being silent look like for you, and how could you incorporate more silence in your life?