The Salience of Silence: When Less is MORE


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What most people know about personal charisma is that it involves a relationship between a person and “followers” that develops over time.  The basis of this charismatic persona is much talked about in the literature.  This charismatic leadership relationship is heavily influenced by what and how a leader speaks to their followers.   Eye contact, facial expressions, hand and body gestures  voice inflection and word choice (inclusive of others vs exclusive to the leader or the organization) are all very common foci of these discussions.  But what is completely overlooked in the literature, and most often in practice, is the fact that “SILENCE” is the loudest word in your vocabulary.  But don’t take my word for it, give it a try.

Most of us avoid silence because we immediately sense that it draws unwanted attention to ourselves.   In fact most crevices of our minds we hear ourselves saying “they think I forgot what to say next”, “they think I’m confused”, “they think I’m stupid”.  But in reality, people know that being silent is a sign that you are either thinking or that you are waiting patiently for them to contribute to the discussion.  Get over your fears of being judged and make a bigger deal out of being silent.   It will pay big dividends in your leadership effectiveness almost immediately.

If you want your people to “engage” in a conversation with you about WHAT to do next and HOW to do it best, ask them questions and wait for their answers.  Lay the groundwork for your conversation, and then allow for a time of silence.  This can feel awkward at first, even embarrassing as the seconds that elapse feel like minutes or hours.  After 10 or 20 seconds of silence, restate your question and enter into that quiet phase again.  This sends the message to your people that you are serious about hearing their ideas.

In other cases, members of your team may be TOO eager to speak up.  In their haste to cooperate (or to show off), they may speak up too quickly (and often before they have giving adequate consideration to your question or their answer).    In these situations, consider “setting up” a brief time of silence by asking them to write down their thoughts on paper.  Then call on members of your team strategically.  At times, you may want to first ask those in your group who tend to speak up least. They may have innovative ideas that they have never had the confidence to share.  Be creative and change your strategy to fit the situation and your specific needs, but use silence to your advantage.

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