Is silence awkward for for you? When you ask a question of someone, how do you feel when there is not an instant reply? When you are asked a question, how long is it before you feel you HAVE to say something?
Silence is powerful. Teachers are taught this when they want the attention of the class, they wait in silence, looking expectantly at the students. Managers know this when they hold meetings, the police know this when they conduct interviews. These are examples when silence is used to influence others to be compliant, to apply subtle pressure and to assert dominance.
Why are we generally so afraid of silence? What is happening to our thinking and in our emotions? There are many reasons that we are uncomfortable, maybe we feel that it reflects on us badly, or that we feel somehow inadequate. Do we believe that because we are not comfortable, the other person is not comfortable too? With all the media streams at our fingertips, it is easy to say that we now have shorter attention spans. This may be partly true, but rather I believe that this is more about being socially validated. Seeking and giving verbal encouragement, support, validation, and attention, are in a way, a deal we are making with others to do the same. If they follow the rule, it really works for us. If not, then it becomes awkward for us.
Silence is nothing to be afraid of. Taking the time to consider your thoughts, response or feelings is time well spent. It enables confidence in your stance or views, it adds a measure of gravitas to you, and your response. Depending on the situation, it allows creativity and depth to the concept being discussed. If you feel pressured by the other party to respond, silence can give you a sense of retaining autonomy, strength and resilience. In more personal and deep conversations, silence allows you to understand the others points, it allows you to understand your own points and allows for the emotion of the topic to be considered too.
It can help to have personal guidelines about silence, that you can apply evenly for yourself, like a rule but not as rigid. In my personal life I use this: When a challenging question or statement is made I say, ‘let me have a think about that’, I break eye contact and think deeply (play with the different aspects of the statement or question). This can sometimes be for a few seconds but typically anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds. It can be longer than that, depending on the topic. Whatever the result of my thinking, I re-establish eye contact, to indicate I’m ready to respond. I remain honest and if I have no good response, opinion or answer, I say so. I must also accept that if others need time to do the same, I give them the time.
This can feel awkward at first, but it definitely get easier. If the other person feels awkward, let them handle it for themselves. If they want help with their awkwardness, they will let you know.
Using silence in written communications
In this time of remote communications, we make assumptions about people and their attitudes to a topic or situation based on a small part of their communications. In a previous blog, I mentioned a communication model by Albert Mehrabian that proposed that the elements that make up communication are Words (7%), Tone (38%) and the Non Verbal (55%). As we use messaging services, Signal, Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, text etc. We are relying on just the 7% to get our intention, meaning and substance of the communication over. If we add to this the length of time it takes for the other person to respond, it it so easy to understand why we can misinterpret this situation.
If you receive a message, how quickly should you respond? Immediately, 5 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, same day, next day? Do you generally feel pressure rising within you to respond, do you imagine how the other person is feeling? Do you feel you are letting them down or not behaving responsibly?
If the response is simple or very clear cut, there is no issue, just respond. If there is some thinking time required, if it is a request for your presence, or to volunteer for something, give yourself time. Mood can affect our response to a request, good and bad. We could say yes and later regret it, because we did not consider our position more deeply. You may feel that you need to respond now, in case you forget to later.
It is often better not not respond immediately. Some thinking time means that you are likely to give a better response that helps you and allows the other person greater understanding.
Creating a new habit
Developing the habit of not responding immediately is a great step forward for yourself. It means giving thought to how you manage messages. Consider setting reading ‘windows’ in your day and responding ‘windows’ too, for your messaging. This way things don’t get missed, you have control over your time and focus, and you become more productive. This is a freedom from the chains of a rule you no longer need. Just like any new habit you want to form, adapting an existing habit is far more productive and easier to adopt.
Worries like, ‘they can see I’ve read their message so will be wanting a response‘, or you may worry that they become frustrated or angry with you, take it as an insult or disrespect. Mind reading is never possible, and when we try we get it wrong far more than we get it right. Besides if you could read minds you would be making a vast salary as a negotiator or investigator, or on stage!
The silence may seem awkward and maybe that is a good thing.
If you are dealing with someone who expects an immediate response, let them know you are in the middle of something, or advise you are going to give it some thought. Give an idea of when you plan to respond, “I’ll get back to you by...” (whichever response window you choose). When you do this a few times, you have retrained them that you are no longer giving quick responses.
If its a line manager, the same applies. They need considered responses more than ‘lip service’ or half considered and potentially inaccurate ones.
Whatever you decide, when, if or how long you take before responding, accept that this is the same choice that other exercise too. Try not to judge, mindread, or blame if it is not to the timescale you wanted.
If you are looking for support you can book counselling or coaching with me at www.chorleytherapy.com/book-online. There are free taster sessions available, so you have nothing to lose.