Speech is silver, silence is golden is an old proverb most likely originating in Arabic culture. As it turns out, it is more and more relevant as the development of technology and the emergence of social networks allow anyone to have a massive audience for their opinions. Technology is a great equalizer when it comes to communication and spreading information. Everyone can be heard. But only because you have the option to say anything that crosses your mind doesn’t mean you should. When everyone talks, no one listens.
Our ability to listen is formed from early childhood and is heavily influenced by our culture. For example, in Western cultures, people are somewhat uncomfortable sitting in silence. Even gaps in conversations can get uncomfortable and awkward very quickly. It seems that any void needs to be filled with noise.
Studies that analyzed thousands of transitions and pauses during English language conversations showed interesting results. The typical pause was around zero to 200 milliseconds. So there is almost no pause between speakers voicing their thoughts. What more, silence has its advantages as it can even be used as a negotiation tactic. Studies of Japanese business people by Haru Yamada showed that they tolerate gaps in the conversation as long as 8.2 seconds. That is almost double the 4.6 seconds of silence that their American counterparts could cope with.
It is worth noting that while there are differences in how much silence different cultures can tolerate, the biggest difference comes from trust. People are more comfortable being silent around those they have a strong, trusting relationship with. If you need to fill any gap in conversation with your partner with more words, it most likely means you don’t feel secure in the relationship. The more secure you are, the more silence you can tolerate and even enjoy.
In a business setting, this applies to higher-status people. If they feel secure in their position and opinions, they are more likely to sit back and listen and are comfortable with silence. In Western cultures, where silence is often interpreted as disapproval, this can be unnerving for their subordinates. When you give a speech, and your boss doesn’t say anything, you will pile on with more and more words, worrying that what you have said wasn’t enough. This means that silence can also be a powerful tool when digging for information. When you ask people a question, and they are done answering, letting the silence build up some tension may force them to keep going and tell you additional information they didn’t plan to share initially.
“Simply put, it is those who are comfortable with who they are, their relationships, and their place in the universe who are comfortable with being silent.”
Gossip doesn’t have a place in modern organizations, yet it still has a positive social role. There is a reason why a significant portion of our conversations is essentially gossip, two people talking about someone who is not present. Gossip helps us to judge who is trustworthy and who is not. It helps us figure out who we should follow, who should be our role models to emulate, and who should be avoided as they can hurt us. We live in a world full of gossip. Even the historical and religious stories we listen to are essentially recorded gossip. We can learn from gossip.
The problem starts when the gossip is meant not to help us or reform the person talked about but to hurt someone. Once the gossip is made up, often in an effort to punish the person talked about more harshly, it can not only unfairly punish the person talked about but also damage the relationship and trust between the two people who share the gossip. It can also lead to undeserved shaming that can completely exclude the talked-about person and make the organization’s culture extremely toxic.
You should never share something told to you in confidence. By divulging a secret that is not yours, you break trust and damage the relationship. In You’re Not Listening, Kate Murphy compares this to money. If you share another person’s private information, it is like spending their money without their approval. You can spend your own money and share anything you want about yourself, but you shouldn’t do it about other people when they entrust you with their secrets or their wallets.
Saying too much
We tend to regret more things we said rather than things we didn’t say. It usually comes from the side of our ego when we need to share our pains or view of the world without regard to whether the other person is ready to hear it. We prioritize our ego above their well-being and make our worries their worries. If we listen first, we can ensure that before we push our burdens on other people, they are secure enough to deal with them.
“We prioritize our ego above the well-being of others, making our worries their worries.”
If you believe that all you do is being honest, and you won’t be held back from speaking the truth, consider what honesty really means. Honesty doesn’t mean you say whatever crosses your mind. You should always consider whether what you are thinking needs to be said and whether it is the right time and place to say it. Just look at many of the internet forums. You can see how the world looks when people, often under a veil of anonymity, say whatever crosses their minds without regard for others. Almost any topic can become controversial and attract haters who will spread toxicity in the name of freedom of speech. People have the need to speak their truth and don’t care what the impact on others might be. Anonymity makes it even worse as there is a feeling of no consequences.
This means that there are situations when you should stop listening. If it is clear that the speaker cares only about their truth and doesn’t care about you, your well-being, or the relationship, you should feel free to stop the conversation, stop listening, and walk away.
Paul Grice, a British language theorist, postulated that communication is a cooperative behavior into which both sides come with some expectations. When those expectations get violated or not fulfilled, they want out. Grice came up with four maxims.
- Maxim of Quantity – be informative. People expect to get some new information but not too much to keep up.
- Maxim of Quality – be truthful. People expect the truth, so don’t say anything that you know is untrue or for which you don’t have enough evidence.
- Maxim of Relation – be relevant. People expect relevance of information and a logical flow.
- Maxim of Manner – be clear. People expect the speaker to be brief, orderly and avoid ambiguity and obscure expressions difficult to understand.
- Some would also include a Maxim of Politeness – be fair in taking turns. But this one may not be as widely applicable as the first four.
When you look at the maxims, you may feel that those who violate them are not good speakers, and to some extent, that is true, but more importantly, they are often bad listeners. They don’t understand their audience well enough, didn’t listen in the past, and therefore may not say what the audience expects to hear.
Putting it all together
Learning to get comfortable with silence can change your life. When you don’t feel the urge to fill any empty space with noise, you become more attentive to your surroundings and yourself. You can start with mindfulness exercises as a way to listen to your own body and mind.
Stop gossiping and when you have the urge, consider whether what you want to say helps the person you are talking about, helps those around, and helps the relationship. If the answers are “no,” then don’t say anything.
When you are comfortable with silence, you are less likely to say more than you intended or say things you would regret later.
And lastly, when you start speaking, be informative, truthful, relevant, clear, and fair in taking turns. Only then will you have a meaningful and helpful conversation with those around you.
What is your take on the topic? Do you think people listen to each other enough? Is silence awkward? What are your thoughts on gossip? Have you ever said something you regretted later? What made you say it in the first place?
Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com
For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, introversion, software development, and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeaderIf you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to get notified whenever I publish new stories or check out my book Quiet Success: The Introvert’s Guide To A Successful Career