The 8 Types of Silence: How to Improve Communication when People aren’t Talking

ignoringarrows.jpgImagine that you’ve just finished a presentation. To your team. To your boss. To some colleagues. You’re done and you ask for questions. But, all you get back is silence. Echoing and uncomfortable silence.

Not all silences are the same.
Silence is a form of communicating. And different silences have different meanings. In order to get the conversation going again, you have to discern the subtext – the message & meaning hidden in the silence.

Here are 8 flavors of silence that I have encountered in over 25 years of facilitating and attending meetings along with their subtext and the actions you can take.

Silence #1: I don’t agree. But, I’m afraid to tell you.
Subtext: When there’s an obvious power imbalance in the conversation, this is a common meaning of silence. You’re the boss and they may be afraid to push against your authority. So, even though they disagree – they’re staying quiet.

Your Action: Make yourself vulnerable. Make it clear that what you’re proposing is a first draft. Ask people to point out what’s missing, what’s off base, what’s flawed in your thinking. And when they do – thank them and ask follow up questions to learn more about their ideas. Do not defend your position.

Silence #2: I have another idea – but doubt you’ll listen.
Subtext: Again, if you have authority and have presented your position with a lot of enthusiasm and zeal, the other person may hesitate to offer an alternative view as they think you’re mind is made up.

Your Action: Be honest about whether you’re open to ideas or not. You may be willing to modify your thinking. Be clear about what’s non-negotiable. Then, ask for feedback. When you get it, ask clarifying questions such as: “How does what you’re suggesting fit with what I proposed?” Don’t launch into a rehash of your presentation.

Silence #3: I have no idea what you’re talking about – but don’t want to offend you by asking a question.
Subtext: Even when you try to be clear – you may be confusing. The other person may have heard the words you said – but can’t figure out what you’re trying to communicate. They don’t want to say that you’re making no sense. But, that’s their experience.

Your Action: If they’re looking dazed and confused – take responsibility. Say: “I don’t think I’ve been clear. What, if anything, have I communicated?” Find out what they think you’re talking about. If they’re not getting it – it’s your responsibility, You’re the communicator. Re-focus yourself and simplify your message. Boil your position down to 1-3 key ideas.

Silence #4: I’m too upset to even talk. I need some time to cool down and gather myself together.
Subtext: Something in what you said has pushed a hot button. The person is upset and rather then react, is choosing to contain their emotions. They’re not saying anything, but their body language is likely screaming – flushed face, clenched jaw, narrowing eyes.

Your Action: Keep breathing. Breathe full, slow breaths. Modulate your own physiology so you don’t shift into the fight or flight response. Take one or two full, slow breaths. This will only take about 15 seconds. Then, say: “I think something I’ve said really doesn’t work for you. Am I right?” Then, stay relaxed and listen if they rant and rave a bit.

Silence #5: I haven’t really been listening. And, I’m not really interested enough to ask you to go over it again.
Subtext: This is kind of the opposite of #4. You’re off target. You haven’t hit a hot button. You haven’t even connected. They’re not engaged.

Your Action:
Like #4, it’s important to keep breathing. This isn’t the time to push your case. Shift gears, if appropriate to focus on what matters to them. As they reveal their goals you may find a way to reconnect back to your point of view.

Silence #6: I’m ready to pounce – but don’t want to be the first to attack.
Subtext: This happens in meetings. The silence is a prelude to the attack. People are waiting for someone else to draw blood. Then, they’ll eagerly jump into the fray and point to all the flaws in your position.

Your Action: This is a tough situation. Some individuals and teams haven’t learned the difference between being aggressive and being assertive. For them, every communication is a contest. Your challenge is to stay centered. To focus on the core of your message and to go past their attacks to identify the useful ideas they offer.

Silence #7: I’ve got an unformed concern – and can’t quite put it into words.
Subtext: Sometimes people have a hard time articulating what bothers them. Something’s not fitting but they can’t say what. They’ve got an uneasy feeling about what your suggesting, but don’t exactly know why.

Your Action: When you see them struggling, lend a hand. Consider your ideas from their point of view. What might make them uncomfortable? What might they object to? What might be threatening? Then, say: “If I were you, I might be concerned about . . .  Do I have that right?” Help them get their objections on the table and then work collaboratively to address them.

Silence #8 I’m thinking. What seems like silence to you is actually filled with thinking for me.
Subtext: People have their own thinking/speaking rhythm. Some take more processing time before they’re ready to speak.

Your Action: Follow their rhythm. Adjust your pace. Express appreciation that they’ve taken time to reflect and seriously consider what you’ve said.

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Categories Communication · Leadership · Learning · resistance · Uncategorized

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Zinger // Oct 14, 2009 at 3:02 am

    Eric:

    I love your perspectives on silence and agree it may be very different things.

    This is helpful for a course I teach on Crucial Conversations to help people understand silence.

    Years ago I was working with a First Nation’s Group in Northern Manitoba. We were in a circle and I asked them a very tough question: “What was it like to grow up in your family?”

    I knew it was a tough question and gave it the time it deserved to not layer over another question or move on. After 10 minutes the first person began and the answer took about 22 hours to go around the circle.

    I have always respected silence from that moment on.

    David

  • 2 Eric // Oct 14, 2009 at 3:12 am

    Thank you, David. Silence is very powerful. Allowing people to settle into silence can deepen both speaking and listening.
    Eric

  • 3 How many different silences can you name? | The Great Work Blog // Oct 20, 2009 at 11:17 am

    […] did you know there were eight types of silence? My friend and colleague Eric Klein has laid them all out – and how to best manage […]

  • 4 Marge // Oct 20, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I learned not to be afraid of silence when I was on stage and saw the impact of a pause and a look. I carried that over into management and have found that waiting through the silence often allows the other person a chance to formulate a response and, perhaps, overcome fear. And at the end of a long day, I love to get in the car and ride…in silence.

  • 5 Eric // Oct 21, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you, Michael for your kind link . . .

    And Marge, I so agree. There’s tremendous power in silence. I’ll post about that next.

  • 6 Alister Scott // Oct 27, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks, this is wonderful. So often, in working with individuals but especially with teams, the most powerful thing I can do is to wait in silence while people process things and then _themselves_ say whatever it is that needs to be said. From the UK, thanks again.

  • 7 Change Management News » Blog Archive » Silence and Resistance // Nov 1, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    […] Klein wrote a good blog post titled The 8 Types of Silence: How to Improve Communication when People aren’t Talking. It’s worth […]

  • 8 Pat McCall // Nov 25, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Not affiliated with the media munchies site, but they’re how I found you. I read your article, and thought about how I could quickly make a good guess as to which type of silence it is. Because if you pick the wrong response, it’s not good (wouldn’t want to make yourself vulnerable in front of the team waiting to pounce, for example).

    Anyhow, I wound up making this flow chart of how I’d figure out which silence I’m facing.

    http://i4.photobucket.com/albums/y112/pilcrow/Which_Silence.jpg

  • 9 Eric // Nov 26, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Pat
    This is brilliantly done!!

    Eric

  • 10 Simon - presentation skills trainer // Dec 10, 2009 at 9:08 am

    I’m not sure that the *exact* breakdown of silences is as you’ve got it (I think some are just examples of others) but I certainly DO agree with your general point.

    An actor friend of mine once commented about the silence before the applause at the end of a performance: the applause tells you how well they think you did it but the silence tells you how worthwhile they thought it was to do it in the first place.

    Simon

  • 11 Eric // Dec 10, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Thank you, Simon.
    You’re quite correct – this breakdown is not “exact”. There are many more distinctions and qualities to silence. I love the one your actor friend describes. The moment of awed/grateful silence before the explosion of applause.
    I’m interested in the other nuances of silence that you discover.
    Eric

  • 12 Understanding Silence in the Workplace — Shared Visions // May 5, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    […] article can be found here. Filed Under: Crucial Confrontations, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Tips, Leadership […]

  • 13 Taking Control of the Awkward Silence « Bodies in Consultation // Apr 1, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    […] silences are not the same. How you react to them is important. Below I will discuss consultant Eric Klein’s top 8 reactions to different […]

  • 14 Kanchan // Aug 5, 2014 at 5:01 am

    Flavors of silence!! How fragile yet poignant an expression!! Almost tempts me to pen a book by that title.. Apt observation on the topic, Eric. Applause!

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