Have you been taking lessons on using silence as a communication tool,” I blurted out after watching a senior colleague defuse a difficult situation without saying a word. His department was at war, with the older members ranged against the juniors. Both sides felt wronged, and the seniors had just spent over an hour accusing their boss—the aforementioned colleague—of supporting the young ones.
Harsh words and strong accusations had been thrown his way by the most vitriolic woman on the side. Some of the language used was so offensive that even her buddies had cringed, and we half expected a sacking right there and then. But we were in for a surprise. The boss listened intently to all that was said—in total silence. He didn’t say a word even when the attacker’s words petered out. An awkward silence descended on the room, and yet he said nothing. Finally, the woman spoke up. “I’m sorry if I’ve been offensive; I didn’t mean to be. The team dynamics have thrown me off kilter.” Finally, the boss spoke up.
He said he understood everyone’s frustration and spelt out 3-4 measures that he intended to take to resolve the situation. The meeting ended ten minutes later on a surprisingly peaceful note, with some of the ‘enemies’ even chatting with each other as they left the room. The department head threw me a wink as we followed them out. At the door, he stopped and said: “Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute.”
That was my first encounter with an effective “user” of silence, but certainly not the last. Over the years, I’ve seen many leaders use the sound of silence to send out messages. We all know how good orators use pauses to keep their audience engaged. Think Barack Obama. Think Amitabh Bachchan.
Or Narendra Modi, who is said to have learnt the art of public speaking from Pause Pundit AB Vajpayee. Their strategic use of pauses keeps listeners clinging to their words, waiting—with the proverbial bated breath—for more.
A pause is positive quietness. Silence has shades of grey. There’s a companionable silence that’s shared with friends or family. But when used in an argument by a speaker looking to unsettle the other side, silence becomes an uncomfortable, even scary tool, that everyone quickly wants gone. Everyone except its user. By letting silence sit—long and hard—in the room, he sends out the message that he’s in control and can ‘handle’ anything thrown his way. That menacing silence is what the colleague I mentioned earlier had used.
Smart players use silence as a negotiating tool. Instead of taking umbrage when offered too low a salary or too poor a price for a product they’re peddling, savvy negotiators choose to keep quiet, working on the principle that ‘she who speaks first, loses.’ Eight times out of ten, unnerved by the silence, the other person blinks and betters his offer.
The most efficient use of silence though is when you don’t have anything of value to communicate. Now that he’s already adopted the pause in his public speaking, perhaps Rahul Gandhi, in his new, improved orator role, could also tap the silence tool.