It was completely silent. I didn’t hear a sound. Nothing. Really, I mean nothing.
Last Thursday night, in the pitch dark and hazy fog, I stood atop the Mount Washington Observatory weather station, pictured here, at the summit of Mount Washington. This legendary place located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, is known for many things: the highest point in the northeastern United States, a heavily traveled destination for tourists to view majestic peaks of the presidential mountain range, arctic terrain that entices and challenges scores of seasoned hikers, and of course, the home of the fastest wind speed ever observed by man.
That might not sound like a quiet place. And it usually isn’t. This windy place can howl. But on this night, there was only a soft breeze, hardly there. As we gazed at the stars and distant valley lights, exposed through intermittent gaps from the fog atop this 6288′ summit, all I heard was silence. Blissful silence. No people. No wildlife. No spring peepers that are deafening at home.
The silence spoke volumes to me. In the mountain’s language, it said to me, “I am a special place. I am different. I am important. I am deserving of the attention I get from faraway travelers who come to visit me. It is not easy to get here but I am worth it. I am a place like no other in the world. Enjoy me.”
That’s saying a lot for being silent. Which is my point. We can learn a lot by listening through the silence.
There are too many times in our business interactions when we rush to fill the silence and when we do that, we change the course of what we can learn. Here are a few examples that come to mind:
- Interviewing. It’s so tempting for the interviewer to fill in words of a candidate’s thoughts, or provide the answer to the question before the candidate can speak.
- Staff meetings. Rather than hold a precious few moments open in silence to let individuals think about a topic, an enthusiastic, energetic manager often pipes in to offer her ideas without waiting to hear others.
- Performance reviews. In uncomfortable discussions about performance, a manager rushes to deliver their opinion, without allowing time for the person to absorb, or react, thoughtfully.
In all these cases, the quality of the exchanges could improve dramatically with a little silence sprinkled in. It allows both parties time to think. Time to reflect. Time to respond more clearly, as opposed to forcing a defensive reaction due to shock, anger, or impulse.
Instead of rushing to get through a conversation, be sure to encourage time to embrace the silence. Here are a few ideas to make that happen:
- Wait before speaking. Be a role model to encourage time to think.
- Ask for time. When posing a question or an idea, establish a time for participants to think before anyone speaks. “Let’s take two minutes and think about this silently before anyone gives their input.”
- Establish balance. If one person is dominating the conversation, summarize their ideas and open it up for others, remembering to suggest a quiet moment for people to think about ideas already shared and those ideas yet to come.
What other ways do you recommend? How has silence been a benefit to you in your work?
That night, that glorious night, when we were literally on top of the world, the silence made me think. That was a very powerful and effective communication sound.