My previous articles about silence dispel some myths about this often-misunderstood behavior, and describe the advantages of developing your ability to be silent.
Silencing is a negative behavior used to prevent someone from expressing their views in an appropriate setting, usually by an unspoken threat of rejection or retaliation. This article will help you identify silencing behaviors, and how to address silencing behaviors professionally and effectively.
Silencing often involves a power differential. When people discuss silencing, the first thing that comes to mind is a powerful person silencing a more vulnerable, dependent person.
- Silencing through disempowerment. Once a person attains power over others – via money, influence, or information – he or she is in a position to set the agenda and make decisions that impact others. Most people learn to lead, and a few become great leaders.However, when an insecure person obtains power, fear drives their actions. Fearful of losing their power or being superseded, they are affronted by suggestions, unable to tolerate doubt, and prone to anger if they are questioned. They use their power to repress others, to restrict conversation, or to prohibit open dialogue.
Josef Stalin is an interesting historical example. A tyrannical leader who tolerated no dissent, Stalin took silencing to a new level by literally erasing his enemies.
Let’s take a look at some ways people are silenced by their peers:
- The Spiral of Silence is a phenomena that occurs when people hide their real opinions, or express opinions they don’t actually hold, for fear they will be judged harshly if their real thoughts and feelings are known. Spiral of Silence is often associated with the media, but it can happen whenever groups divide into factions.When Teresa joined the company as a Marketing manager, the team had mixed reactions. Most were friendly; a few seemed to take an immediate dislike to her. Ellen, a long-time employee, was in the latter group. With a steady stream of negativity, she gradually turned several influential team members against Teresa. James and Nicole liked their new manager but knew that if they defended Teresa, Ellen would target them, so they said nothing.
- Silencing through Groupthink. Groupthink occurs when an individual sets aside – or is pressured to set aside – their own thoughts and feelings to conform with those of a group. If any individual suggests changes, questions the group’s decisions, or expresses doubt, the group acts as a unit to silence them. The individual may be shouted down, accused of disloyalty, or expelled from the group. Groupthink is usually accompanied by an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
Lastly, you can silence yourself.
- Self-silencing. Self-silencing people change their words and actions to match what they believe they should say or do. Self-silencing was once viewed as unique to women, but men and women of all ages and races are capable of self-silencing.I’m not going to ask a question, because a good parent would already know the answer.
I wish I could point out the hole in this logic, but women aren’t supposed to be that blunt.
I don’t care about this initiative, but I have to pretend I do or people will think I’m a jerk.
Should you address silencing behavior?
If you are ready to address silencing behavior, there are ways to do so politely and effectively.
However, there are valid reasons why you might choose not to act. For instance, it may not be worthwhile to do anything if you rarely interact with the individual(s) in question, or if the topic isn’t important to you. You may find that your interests are better served by simply observing the power dynamics in the room and gathering information. Doing nothing does not mean you are condoning bad behavior. You’re doing the right thing, based on your current circumstances.
How to address silencing behavior
Begin with getting into the right frame of mind. Be confident. Remember that silencing someone else is not a justifiable behavior. You have a unique perspective to put forward and value to offer. Also, be generous. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Silencing behavior can stem from preoccupation or a lack of self-awareness.
Here are a few ideas:
- Be proactive in creating a more collaborative environment. Encourage the group to develop ground rules for participation. Point out that agreements like allowing people to make a point without interruption are beneficial to everyone.
- Model respectful interaction. If you observe another person being silenced, you can correct the behavior without calling anyone out.
“Adnan, you didn’t have a chance to finish your point earlier. What were you going to say?”
- Call out the behavior under the assumption it was accidental. Approach the person who silenced you and reintroduce the topic.
“Hi Cyndi, I’m following up about our meeting this morning. You asked a few people for input but we ran out of time before you could ask me. I want to share an idea with you.”
- Confront the issue directly with feedback. Try using the Situation Behavior Impact (SBI) model to provide feedback.
“Mark, in last week’s team meeting (situation), I was making a point and you said, ‘That won’t work’ and started talking right over me (behavior). I’m concerned that by interrupting me and making a dismissive comment, you damaged my credibility and yours with the team (impact).”
- Treat silencing with silence. If the silencing behavior is intentionally rude or dismissive, resist the urge to reply in kind. Wait until you are calm to address it, and remember a thoughtful silence may make your point more effectively than words ever could.