Depending on the situation, and your predisposition, silence will be either awfully awkward or pretty productive. How many times have you been in the elevator, with the weird guy from HR, wishing (nay, willing!) the elevator would zoom to it’s destination? The sound of moving cables is never enough to dispel the deafening sound of silence consuming you and HR guy. Unfortunately, this situation can never be made right.
Outside of the elevator though, one’s relationship with silence can be better. I like a pause in conversation from time to time. It let’s you gather your thoughts, get past any emotions struggling to get themselves heard and to consider what the other person has said (or not said).
If you are like me, you end up in a lot of situations with people who are either generally unreasonable as a rule, or tend to have many more unreasonable demands than any one person should have. You wouldn’t believe what a good dose of nothing will do in these conversations. It is also important to maintain a calm veneer. No need to look like you are thinking “but, what madness is this?!” Because most people are in the boat you are currently in, SS Shun Silence at All Costs, they will be put-off by your lack of words. They will begin to doubt the validity of their statements, as they should. Then, if you are lucky, they will realize that they were being unreasonable. At this point, resist the urge to turn the screw and highlight how silly they’ve been. Give them an out. Say something like, “I see you are concerned about _____ but there must be a better way to sort this out.” They will agree with you, because they have already realized they were being ridiculous. If you are dealing with a person that will stick to their ground, no matter how pointless it is then move on to Plan B. Plan B is simple… stay quiet. My favourite thing to do at this point is throw in a “hmm”. Hmm means I will give you no fuel for your fire. Then, depending on the situation, I will change the topic subtly. If the topic was cows, I will start to talk about milk.
But all that is for persons who you only talk to because you have to. When it comes to friends, you’re invested in the relationship and you have to make the effort to meet in the middle. I read an interesting article recently about Tim Cook, the new CEO of Apple by Matthew Grothaus of The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW). He relates a story of asking Cook a question and remembering the occasion not because it was the then Apple #2 guy, but because “he took his own sweet time answering it.” I found this curious. Here’s an excerpt:
Tim Cook is one of those rare people who stop and think before speaking. Standing in the same room with him I realized that he’s comfortable with silence as long as that silence is productive and appropriate. He’s not like other tech execs who ramble almost immediately and incoherently at any question lobbed at them, as if doing so will convince others they know everything about everything.
Tim Cook is a person who has confidence in his position as a leader, sans ego. Ego doesn’t take pauses. It’s rapid-fire. And it’s that confidence and lack of ego that allows him the time to examine the issues and questions at hand, no matter how lowly or silly others may think them, and address them appropriately.
Applying this to friends or people you are engaging in meaningful conversation will lead to clearer, more productive conversations. And more sincere, genuine ones too. You won’t miss all the non-verbal cues you should be assimilating, you will become more aware of your own body language and you will walk away feeling like you really connected with the person. Don’t feel like you’ve got to have an answer to everything said to you for the sake of seeming opinionated or smart. Just do you. That’s what your (real) friends want, anyway. So I’m working on that myself… but I am sure I will have to use Plan B much more than I would like to.
PS: Last night I was in a Skype group conversation with some friends. Someone asked a question that no one wanted to answer and (I kid you not) the world’s loudest cricket started to chirp. Cue laughter. Talk about perfect timing =)
So the next time a cricket tries to be the third wheel in your conversation, have a laugh and embrace it. Crickets may be uncomfortable with silence, but you don’t have to be.