12 Jan 2008

Three kinds of silence

Posted by paulandrew

Technically, silence is pretty simply. It’s just the absence of sound. But the more interesting question is “what does that silence actually mean?”

One the one hand, it can mean “I don’t have anything more to say.” This is the readiest assumption for listeners, but it’s a dangerous one. Why? Because then as the listener I’m tempted to fill in that space, when in fact the silence could mean many other things. 

A second meaning could be “I’m self-conscious about taking all of the air space,” or on a related note, “I don’t know if you’re actually interested to hear this.” Thus the speaker isn’t done yet, and has more to say, but is being conscious of the listener, and could use some reassurance to go on. In which case simply sharing a little piece of “what I got” can encourage the speaker to continue.

And then a third and crucial meaning could be “I’m taking a moment to think about this as I talk.” As a Supportive Listener, if the speaker is pausing to think then this is great news. We are indeed facilitating the speaker’s wisdom and intelligence to solve their problem. Thus it is more critical than ever to not interrupt here, but to just wait.

Thus it brings up a good question, “How do you know which kind of silence it is, and when to wait, and when to jump in?” Frankly it’s more of an art than a science, and over time you’ll develop at sense for it.

Here are a few tips to get you going:

  • The next time you’re in conversation with someone, make a point of paying attention to their silences. Which type is it?
  • Wait a little longer than you normally would, and see if the person naturally continues their thought, or goes onto something different. You’ll be amazed and how often they were actually just thinking!

and a bonus tip: What do you habitually do when the speaker stops talking, even briefly? Do you jump in? Do you tense up? Do you hang back?

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