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Use the Power of Silence

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Best-selling author and keynote speaker Connie Glaser is one of the country’s leading experts on gender communication and women in leadership. Exploring communication differences between men and women, Connie offers corporate seminars on effective communications and overcoming barriers to leadership.

It’s often assumed that listening is a passive activity—you sit there and nod your head intermittently until the other person is through and it’s your turn. You may slide in an occasional word to let them know you’re there, but basically you’re not in the driver’s seat. Or are you?

Powerful communicators know that by being an active listener, you can position yourself at the control panel—subtly and strategically. These tips for active listening should help you exercise your power options:

Use empathy. “Mirroring” a speaker can help you build trust and establish rapport. Mirroring entails matching the tone, rate, and volume of your voice to those of the speaker. It also involves noticing and using some of the same words, gestures, and phrases. Mirroring a speaker can help you find common ground. The trick, of course, is to do it without being obvious, so focus on approximating a speaker’s oral and body language rather than imitating him or her.

Listen for others’ “hot buttons” and use them to your advantage. Gloria Hoffman and Pauline Graivier, coauthors of Speak the Language of Success, define hot buttons as “areas of passions and sensitivity—things we know will elicit a certain response from someone in a given situation.” Hit a negative one, and you risk turning someone off. Find a positive one, appeal to it, and you’ll likely find success.

Learn to tolerate silence. A short pause in conversation is not necessarily a cue for you to take up where a speaker left off. Silence can have a variety of meanings. It may indicate that your speaker doesn’t understand what you’ve said. It could mean she has nothing constructive to say. Whatever the reason, learn to keep mum and use silence as part of your communications arsenal. Few women do this, because we don’t understand silence. It can intimidate us, and we become so uncomfortable that we rush in and say anything to avoid it. Yet, according to Hoffman and Graivier, when you break the silence first, you have given up control.

Learn to use “power pauses” to your advantage. “Being quiet is actually a very mature aspect of good verbal communication,” they add. “But although it sounds quite logical, people tend not to do it. Instead they insist on filling up the silence. That, however, is precisely what makes silence such a powerful tool for those who have the control to use it: other people will want to fill the gap of silence when you don’t. It becomes a question of who blinks first.”

For example when Patricia, a lab technician, went for a job interview, the employer was so impressed that he nearly offered her the job on the spot. “I got home from work and found a message on my voicemail,” she says. “I waited until the next morning to call him back, and he made an offer on the phone. The salary he proposed was much more than I was making, but rather than show my excitement, I paused to give the impression that I was thinking it over. Then just as I was about to accept his offer, he rushed in and made me an even better one!” Patricia’s lesson: Silence may indeed be golden.

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