Two friends are having lunch when suddenly the conversation stalls because one person is distracted by something in the distance. Or a phone signaled an incoming message causing an immediate shift in attention. In either case, one person is faced with silence. This type of silence is born of rudeness regardless of the intention. Conversely, there is also silence by choice as a form of communication. In both cases, silence can be difficult to navigate. Silence is …
For some, intimidating.
Most people don’t know how to deal with silence. Yet it’s one of the most powerful communication tools we have. By learning when to invoke silence to communicate your message you’ll become a more effective speaker. Similarly, by learning how to handle silence you’ll become a more confident listener.
About twenty years ago, before my wife and I had our sons, Amy worked full time as a Physical Therapist Assistant. The title carries a burden of misunderstanding and premise of lower-class citizen in the medical community. The PTA reputation often bled into a patient’s perception, too. Patients needed treatment but doubted Amy’s ability to help.
Amy’s job was to follow the orders of the physical therapist who was following the orders of the physician’s assistant who was following the order of the physician. Four levels down is where the rehab work took place. The majority of the patients wanted the PT to help them. And an even bigger problem existed…most of the patients wanted a male therapist.
It drove Amy nuts.
She was excellent at her job. She graduated at the top of her class. Consistently received accolades from the PTs and doctors. She even won some awards, taught some classes and stayed on top of current trends. None of it mattered when she was in front of a new patient.
Time and time again she would approach a patient, explain why she was there and what exercise was needed, only to be turned away. Many patients assumed Amy was a nurse. When she explained she was the PTA, the patient would argue Amy couldn’t be strong enough to help or may not know what she was doing. Please send a man.
Amy was exasperated. She had worn down to the point of pleading or badgering to coerce patients into participating. It didn’t work.
During the months of Amy struggling I would listen as she vented her frustrations. I rarely commented. Then one day she asked me what should could do differently. I asked her to tell me what exactly happened when she entered a patient’s room. Our conversation went something like this:
Amy: Well, before I go in the room I read the chart. The room is usually busy because it’s post-op so I want to make sure I know what I’m doing when I walk in. If it’s something new or if I need a refresher I’ll talk to the PT. When I know how to approach the rehab I enter the room. I’ll smile, introduce myself and explain why I’m there. I’ll ask the patient to lift, or sit up or whatever we need to do. But nothing will happen. I’ll keep asking and smiling but it doesn’t work.
Me: Is this when they ask for a man?
Amy: A lot of times it is.
Me: Then act like a man.
Amy: I don’t even know what that means.
Me: When a man wants someone to do something he approaches it differently. He assumes he has authority, gives the instructions, then waits until it happens.
Amy: Ok. But how do I do that?
Me: Enter the room the same way you always do but when you give the instruction don’t say anything else. Smile but stay silent. Be totally, completely, yet pleasantly silent. And wait.
Amy: Wait for what? What if nothing happens?
Me: Try it.
Amy: I don’t understand how this will work. I don’t think I can be quiet and wait.
Out of frustration – maybe desperation – Amy tried this. It worked. She was flabbergasted. The proper use of silence helped Amy reduce her frustration and improve the lives of many patients.
I’ve taught people to use silence in customer service roles, too. Allow the angry person to vent. You’ll have all kinds of nasty things said to you and generally a CSR can’t do what the customer wants. If the CSR will stay silent, not take things personally, and listen…the angry person will typically calm down. Once the angry person calms himself down, the CSR can speak. You are still engaged, but silent. Acknowledge you are still on the line if it’s over the phone, but don’t interject thoughts or justifications. Be boldly silent before trying to solve a problem.
Why silence works
- Allows people to think
- Calms emotions
- Forces you to focus on the nonverbals
- Is an effective technique to emphasize a point
- Makes a request more likely to be fulfilled
- Displays confidence
- Can be informative (when the other person continues to talk because of fear of silence)
Everyone wants to be heard. Using silence allows you to listen to the other person. It shows you are attentive, caring, and confident.
When you are speaking to anyone, the proper use of silence can allow the person a mental break. This is especially helpful when introducing new information or an alternate perspective of how to solve a problem.
Silence should be one of the primary tools you use when communicating. The proper use of silence will make you a better communicator.