In some ways, it’s more helpful to understand what silence is not, than to understand what it is.
Silence is not a void. It is often defined – even by the dictionary – as merely a lack of words or sound. That is certainly part of it, but silence is a unique type of communication, just like speaking or facial expressions, and equally capable of conveying meaning.
Silence is not listening. Listening in silence is possible; so is not listening in silence. Active Listening is an important skill for demonstrating understanding and attention that is often inaccurately paired with silence. Active Listening encourages listeners to acknowledge and reflect what another person says.
No silence in the West
In general, silence is uncomfortable for the Western world. Silence puts some indefinable pressure on us, and we rush to fill the gaps with conversation. In business, especially, even the prospect of silence is frightening. Our dread of it may explain why small talk is considered essential etiquette, and why professionals strive to develop competencies like Approachability. Recent studies revealed that during conversation, people feel uncomfortable after four seconds of silence. Even when we’re alone, we tend to fill our environments with noise and music, often falling asleep with a TV or radio playing in the background. Some people never experience silence.
Silence isn’t so simple
Many messages are conveyed with silence. The meaning of a silence – and the reaction to it – can be very different. Silence can be separated into two major categories, with several types
1. Absent silence happens when someone is physically present but not paying attention. It could be the person who is absently silent is preoccupied with something important, but typically absent silence signifies disinterest. For that reason, it can be frustrating and hurtful to others.
2. Present silence is practiced by someone who is alert and listening, but not speaking. Present silence is neither a good or bad thing, unless you further classify it. Some of the most common sub-types are:
- An argumentative, or hostile silence happens when one person refuses to respond to a prompt put forward by another person, e.g., a question or accusation. This is sometimes called a stony silence, or giving someone the silent treatment, and it’s easily recognized as the silent person demonstrating anger or disgust.
- An awkward silence can occur for any number of reasons. Some examples are as a result of embarrassment, being in a state of confusion or uncertainty, or simply difficulty hearing what others are saying. It’s also frequently misinterpreted by others as judgment or a lack of caring on the silent person’s part.
- A compassionate silence often happens during times of emotion, after something important has been shared, or when people have shown empathy toward one another. Unlike an awkward silence, compassionate silence is rarely misunderstood since it only takes place when people feel closely connected.
- A reflective silence may occur when a person processes information, or attempts to make sense of a situation or event. Reflective silences frequently happen when a person is alone. This type of silence is closely related to meditating, and it can be therapeutic.
Why should silence matter to you?
In some professions, like therapy and nursing, knowing when and how to be silent is critical to success. That might not be the case for everyone, but anyone can use silence to their personal or professional benefit.
Stay tuned for a new article that covers positive and negative ways silence is used, and the close relationship between silence and power.