Falling silent, also known as the effective pause, is a powerful tool to use during interpersonal communication. It is a skill in which you intentionally create a void in the dialogue, before or after saying something meaningful, to entice the other side to continue talking and perhaps expound on a point they were trying to make. It is arguably the most underutilized listening skill. Sometimes, even though it is in our best interest, we find it difficult just to shut up.
What makes it so powerful? Human nature is such that most people are uncomfortable with silence. Most hate to stay in the silence for longer than seven seconds (we know because we have counted) before jumping in to break it. The average is two to three seconds. That is as long as most will endure this discomfort. The one thing we want more than anything else when we are uncomfortable is to get comfortable again. The pursuit of comfort will supersede everything, causing us to continue vomiting information in order to relieve the awkwardness produced by the silence. Attorneys know this all too well. They are trained early on to exploit silence to encourage more robust disclosure. A friend of mine was being deposed in a civil case about conduct to which he was a witness. The attorney asked him a direct question. He provided the answer which was very succinct. After the attorney recorded his response on her legal pad, she stopped writing, cocked her head to the side, stared at him. She smiled but did not say another word. And she waited. And she waited. And she waited, hoping that he would continue speaking. Of course, he didn't because what she did not know was that he was close friends with a hostage negotiator and he was familiar with the tactic.
Give silence a chance the next time...
- ...you are dealing with an assertive person. Assertives love to hear themselves talk because it allows them to show others how smart they are. When you fall silent, you are begging to be enlightened. Allowing them to speak plays to their ego and at the same time can provide you with valuable information.
- ...to address counterproductive behavior like yelling, cursing or ad hominem attacks. Even the most emotional counterpart will find, unless they are psychotic, it difficult to carry on a one-sided “fight.” When they fail to elicit a verbal response from you, their emotions will dissipate, returning them to a normal functioning level.
- ...to educate the other side that dialogue is a turn-taking process. By remaining silent at the right time, you actually move the overall negotiations process forward.
- ...in combination with other active listening skills such as labeling or mirroring. Falling silent after a label or mirror will afford the opportunity for your counterpart to provide you “tells” as to the motivation behind their behavior.
“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever effective as a rightly timed pause” --Mark Twain