Why effective leaders use the power of silence

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 10:00
AIM Blog - Why effective leaders use the power of silence

In a noisy world, it can be easy for leaders to equate impact with how much they talk. Less is thought about the power of silence. Silence is a communication device, just like listening and talking, which when used wisely can increase a leader’s impact.

Leaders who have presence know the right moment to talk and the right time to hold silence. They recognise the occasions where staying silent is more powerful than talking. This can be challenging. Through a series of experiments Harvard University researchers confirmed what many already suspected - that humans like talking about ourselves. In fact, when we do this the reward centres of the brain are activated.

Effective leaders know that leadership isn’t about what they want, it’s about what the people around them need. When a leader remains quiet for a while it creates space for other people in the discussion to share their opinions and raise questions.  If the leader dominates the conversation, contrary views are likely to be suppressed. Effective leaders are comfortable enabling other people to hold the floor.

Silence can also be used to create a tension in the conversation, which is particularly effective when negotiating. Many people are uncomfortable with silence. Consequently, if there’s a lull in the conversation they jump in to close the gap with a comment or question. The result is they say more than they intended and give ground.

The English documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux, is well known for his effective use of silence. It’s by staying silent that he creates the tension, which spurs the people he is interviewing to talk and reveal their thoughts. A perfectly timed paused can also be used to emphasise a point as it gives people time to take in what has been said. You’ll often see speakers use this technique to great effect. They are holding the space and giving the audience time to reflect.

Using silence wisely requires balance and the right intent. 

For leaders, it’s helpful to consider:

  • Timing – when you put forward your view and when you stay silent
  • Temperament – your mindset and how you are feeling when this happens to ensure silence is being used with the best intent

Silence isn’t helpful when it is used as a weapon of anger or in a way which is passive aggressive as it leads to poor outcomes and impacts relationships. For example, when one person stops communicating with another person or blocks someone from being heard or feeling comfortable to share their views. 

About the author: Michelle Gibbings is a career and change leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’.  For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact michelle@michellegibbings.com.