When silence is golden

April 22, 2017

When silence is golden

"Sometimes, the smartest thing to say is nothing at all." (Bill Murphy Jr) 

Account managers talk – a lot. You give strategic input and words of wisdom to your clients; you negotiate with and instruct suppliers; and you give direction and mentorship to your team. Every hour of every day you will be found talking, and you will (usually) be the one in the driver's seat - conducting all the moving parts to facilitate projects and get work out the door. 

The right words, spoken at the right time, can achieve goals, accomplish great things, inspire people, and develop relationships; and the wrong words, or words spoken at the wrong time, can do just the opposite. Surprisingly, effective communication also has a third option, which actually involves saying nothing at all.

We have to be able to recognise when we are talking too much and listening too little, and – as a result – eroding the depth of our conversations. A well-placed pause, or sitting back just to listen can be highly effective, so the trick is knowing when talk, and when to use this strange discipline of keeping silent.  

When silence is a great strategy: 

  • When you do not yet know the full situation. 
  • When you have no idea what you are talking about. 
  • When speaking your mind will get you into trouble. 
  • When you are not sure whether to speak or keep quiet. 
  • When you're in a battle that is not worth fighting. 
  • When you are convinced you are 'right'. 
  • When someone else deserves the credit. 
  • When you catch yourself either bragging or pulling other people down. 
  • When you are clearly boring people. 
  • When the other side in a negotiation starts debating against itself. 
  • When by keeping quiet you are able to observe and understand more. 
  • When the person you are talking to is not receptive to what you have to say. 
  • When you've asked a question. 
  • When you want to make an attention-grabbing move in meetings. 
  • When you want to make your presentations and speeches more engaging. 
  • When you are in a heated discussion that is intensifying. 
  • When you feel angry. 
  • When someone expects you to be angry. 
  • When you are tempted to say anything just to fill a void. 
  • When you have had one too many drinks. 
  • When there is a good chance you'll say something foolish. 

When silence is not a great strategy: 

  • When your silence comes across as passive-aggressive (e.g. giving someone the 'silent treatment'). 
  • When nodding or just listening implies your agreement, and you don't necessarily agree. 
  • When you appear ignorant or a lacking in confidence. 

There is power in waiting to respond - it will give you time to think before speaking, rather than blurting out an impulsive response. There is also power in listening to others without interrupting them, in order to fully understand what they are saying (and what they are not saying), and to let them know they are being heard. 

Silence will help your team to grow stronger as a unit. If you tend to know all the answers, and your colleagues are a bit slower on the uptake, hold back and let them figure things out for themselves. This is not to let them fail, but to allow them time to come up with ideas and solutions that they may not otherwise have had the chance to do. Well-chosen moments of silence, and well-developed listening skills, are marks of strong leadership. 

One of the most important parts of business communication is sensing when not to talk. Sometimes the greatest business lessons you will learn will occur during the times when you keep your own mouth shut and just listen. That's when you'll gain a solid understanding about when to speak, and when words will simply get in your way. 

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