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The world is stronger and stronger. There is enough noise to make silence uncomfortable and it affects our interactions. In conversation, the volume is perceived as loud. In meetings, opinions are aired at high volume. But there are strong arguments for staying quiet, especially at work, and especially for business leaders looking to motivate teams or broker tough deals.
Entrepreneurs often assume that their silence will be mistaken for indecision. To understand the benefits of being quiet, it helps to unpack the minds of quiet people, including misperceptions.
Related: Advocate for “silent leadership”
Quiet people aren’t always introverted
Introverts are having a moment, with advocates like Susan Cain calling introversion a superpower, arguing that observers can better assess problems and digest information. Introversion and extroversion are personality types that remain fairly constant throughout our lives. Although introverts focus more on quiet contemplation, anyone can be quiet. Most of us manage to remain silent when circumstances call for observation more than outward reactions – in presentations or movie theaters, for example.
Unlike introversion, calm is context-dependent, which means it can be used as a tactic.
Silence is not the absence of thought
In meetings that require brainstorming, it’s easy to assume that quiet people are just taking up space. The myth that links silence to incompetence is evolving as awareness grows around power dynamics, diversity and inclusion, and psychological safety. When obstacles prevent people from speaking, they must be overcome. Also, quiet people may need more time. Observers may be internal contractors.
We absorb information in accordance with our communication and learning styles. External processors speak through ideas as they come to mind. Thinking out loud helps them understand details and make decisions. The internal processors have to sit down with all the data before saying anything.
Processing styles can also depend on context, so consider which style works best for you in a given scenario. You might take longer to digest complicated issues presented to you by direct reports, for example, but prefer to be vocal and collaborative during strategy sessions with peers.
You can become the strong and silent type
The silent tactic is most useful when your thoughts are emotionally nuanced. If you disagree with a co-worker’s strategic direction, it’s a good idea to take more time to percolate before informing your team. Calm down so you can sound positive when discussing the changes.
Keep calm at times when negotiations will only happen once, such as key hiring decisions. Verbal offers are tempting if you get along well with the interviewee; it is often wise to wait until they are gone to review the qualifications of all top candidates. Being quiet also helps when something is bothering you, like a pitch that didn’t land as planned or rejected budget increase requests. Remember the old adage: “It is better to be silent and look like a fool than to speak up and dispel any doubt”. Silence allows you to regroup before agreeing to anything prematurely.
Finally, be quiet with your team. As a psychologist, I can vouch for this tactic, which is often used in classical psychoanalytic therapy. Most people fill an uncomfortable silence, and everything after a pause is often vital. When leaders wait to speak or react, direct reports tend to blurt out what they’re really thinking, add context to an earlier point, or clarify something they’ve been replaying in their minds.
Uncomfortable silence is also part of the selling process. When you leave the space after the presentation, you get the customer’s perspective and reaction, and often more details about their needs. This becomes data used to close the sale.
Stay silent as a tactic in your own work habits. What scenarios require listening more than talking?