Why Silence is Golden: How to harness the power of the pause in professional communication

Shhhh! From negotiations to public speaking, silence may be the most powerful tool in our toolbox. Yet, so few people know how to use it. Learn how to harness the power of silence to make your interactions stronger—by saying less. 

I help people talk about themselves—and talk to each other—so it's surprising to realize that many of my clients are even more uncomfortable with silence than speaking. I watch them fill the gap, speak first or say too much. They are losing their power by speaking out. If you want to have presence, it's essential to master the subtle art of being silent.

In today's society, we are so plugged in, we rarely experience peace and quiet. We are constantly being "pinged". This creates an unseen layer of stress in our everyday lives, but we've adapted to feel comfortable with it.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, silence is a major part of having effective communication skills. Studies show that as English language speakers, we leave, on average, just a fraction of a second between turns when speaking. According to the BBC, "in Japan, the power of silence is recognized in the concept of haragei (belly talk), which suggests that the best communication is when you don’t speak at all." Dr. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, says that  “As soon as you need words there’s already a failure to understand each other so you’re repairing that failure by using words."

Using Silence Strategically

You've heard that the squeaky wheel gets the grease but we also know that he who speaks first, loses. Which is it? With strategically placed silence, listening and retention increases 30-40%. And we know that filling the silence by using unconscious behaviors weakens your message.

There are times when you must speak up to be seen and heard. But there are other times when it is better to say nothing at all. Follow these tips to learn how to recognize when to stay quiet.

Recognizing when to be silent

Negotiating and Selling

You are walking into a negotiation with your boss. You make a case for why you deserve a raise after being handed a new set of responsibilities. Your boss is silent. Is she thinking about what you've just said, or waiting for you to break the silence and compromise?

You are on the phone pitching a potential new client. You hear about their needs and tell them about your services. They finally ask a dreaded question: "What's it going to cost?" You reply with your price and there's silence on the line. Is he calculating whether or not he can afford you, or waiting for you to come down a bit?

In both of these scenarios, the best response is none at all. As long as you have practiced what you want to say in the lead up (and say it with confidence), it is best to silently stand firm after you've made your case. Even if it's scary to not know what they will say next, you will be on stronger ground by not speaking first.

Public Speaking

Mark Twain said, "The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” The greatest speakers of our time know how to pause when public speaking. Bill Clinton does it, and so does Michelle Obama.

Most humans are terrified of public speaking—74% of us, in fact (although, when I ask this question in my workshops, I find it's usually more like 90% of the room who fear public speaking). The fear of public speaking can prevent people from preparing at all, and if they do prepare, they tend to focus on the words themselves. This can be dangerous because most communication is actually nonverbal.

In that case, how can we better prepare for public speaking? You guessed it: Focus on what happens between the words. This may mean removing unconscious behaviors like filler, qualifiers and apologies. Taking a deep breath at every change of thought will root you and force a "system override"—a manual reset—especially if you are nervous. A pause allows you to set the pace which can be soothing for an audience who is following along. It also prevents you from speaking too fast if you have a tendency to do so.

Practicing Silence

Schedule It

Silence doesn't come naturally to many of us. It is not habitual and it is outside of our comfort zones. So, we need to make an active effort to practice it and work it into our way of speaking.

Some people choose to go on silent retreats to change their behaviors, but I recommend working in silent moments to your day-to-day instead. Take five minutes and literally do nothing. Choose an hour and go on airplane mode or turn your phone on silent. Instead of having music or television on while working from home, choose to spend an afternoon free of background noise.

Start Small

Identify interactions where you will practice silence. Do this by choosing an environment, a situation or a type of person and then practice not filling the gap. Choose situations where you'd normally use small talk. For example, make a choice to practice silence in the elevator on your way up to work, with a manager who intimidates you or with the guy you order coffee from each morning. Get a grip on filler words by recording yourself and listening for unconscious UMs and Likes. Practice deep breathing in the space where you'd normally speak up.