I had the pleasure of exploring silence with a group of fellow coaches recently, facilitated ably by my colleague Ian Smith. We concluded silence can be a gift, as it is received and understood by different people differently.
We experimented with silence to reflect on what silence meant, and then shared our thinking. For the most part, the participants in this reflective discussion viewed silence as a positive thing, as it gives others time and space to think and reflect. I was curious. I see certain instances of silence as being quite destructive; those uncomfortable silences, when something needs to be said, but no one is saying it. Like the silence that is taken as acquiescence in a meeting, but as soon as the meeting is over, people rebel and do not follow through with what was “agreed”. Like the silence that leads to Groupthink. Perhaps like the silence that ignores the ‘elephant in the room’.
Three levels of silence
This inspired me to research the current thinking out there in the blogosphere about silence. I only found positive interpretations of silence. Silence is often categorised into several levels. I found examples of up to 12 levels. This I find excessive, although I also find it excessive that the Eskimo-Aleut languages have 50 words for snow.
Sensible categorisations of silence appear to fall into three levels:
- The absence of sound
- A disinterest in external activity, where the mind is focused inwards
- A deep inner silence brought on through meditation, in pursuit of oneness and total contentment.
There is now a Level Zero
[Children’s movie spoiler alert]
Po: Lets just start at zero; Level Zero.
Shifu: Oh no. There is no such thing as Level Zero.
Thus starts the scene in Kung Fu Panda, where our hero, the overweight panda Po, begins his journey to enlightenment. After Po hits a children’s punchbag and is sent flying into moving ropes and swinging pendulums, he endures being deposited into a tilting bowl, where he hits his head several times until the bowl tips over and sets off a chain reaction that causes swinging arms to smack him in the groin and then knock him violently into a fire pit. He slumps over next to his Sensei, Shifu, burned and charred.
Po: How did I do?
Shifu: There is now a Level Zero.
I propose four levels of silence for your consideration:
0. Uncomfortable silence
1. Comfortable silence
2. Reflective silence
3. Deep silence.
Level 0: uncomfortable silence
Uncomfortable silence arises through fear of being isolated because you have a different opinion from the majority. This is closely aligned to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s ideas in the Spiral of Silence. People tend to remain silent for fear of social exclusion when they have a minority opinion that might challenge the group’s dominant idea. They must constantly use energy to assess the climate in a social group and may choose to remain silent or ‘lose their voice’, especially if they have been criticised in the past. This does not apply to those (at the top of Noelle-Neumann’s spiral) who are hardcore nonconformists or who represent the Avant-Garde. Such people are less likely to remain silent.
The advent of the Internet has also arguably lowered this type of silence online, where people with minority (often extremist) views are likely to seek out others of similar views and use chat rooms to find their voice. Such folk can also benefit from the anonymity of the Internet, which lowers the fear of reprisal, and has led to an uprising in airtime for controversial views.
In a workplace context, uncomfortable silence represents a denial of responsibility, allowing undiscussable topics to remain undiscussable, and ultimately degenerates into a ‘snakepit’ organisation, where people retreat into their silos and protect themselves against attack from each other.
Level 1: comfortable silence
The main problem with silence is that we do not know what it means when it happens. Is the silence uncomfortable: a denial of responsibility, or comfortable: a true agreement to what is being discussed?
Comfortable silence happens when we are happy together, perhaps lost in our own thoughts and not needing to fill the silence with words. We are comfortable with the people we are with. This is a passive silence.
I suggest this is only possible if there are no hidden assumptions. Very close friends and life partners can achieve this level of silence.
In the workplace, achieving this level of silence requires good facilitation to reveal hidden assumptions, discuss the undiscussables, explore the elephant in the room, etc. This is necessarily not a silent activity and such facilitation may well move people quickly to level 2 silence.
Level 2: Reflective silence
Reflective silence is when you have the space and time to think. As an individual, you would be well-advised to carve out time in your busy schedule to do this, or perhaps to use the services of a coach to gift you such time and space.
Level 2 silence becomes timeless, lost in your own thoughts. You become disinterested in external activity, your mind is turned inwards. You achieve a quietness inside, regardless of the external sounds. It requires stillness, and yet is an active silence.
In the workplace, a good facilitator or group coach can gift you time and space to think as a team.
Level 3: Deep silence
Deep silence has its traditions in several ancient world religions, such as Zen Practice and Monastic Silence. It is a silence that can be achieved through deep meditation. You may well practise mindful meditation already, focusing on what is happening right now. This does not require external silence. In fact, deep silence is the pursuit of total oneness, total contentment and inner silence, regardless of any external sounds. It is also possible regardless of what you are doing. Deep silence does not require stillness, and yet is a passive silence
I tentatively suggest the following framework:
In the workplace, issues arise when silence is misunderstood. When people push their own views, they demonstrate a ‘stay in control’ or ‘win, don’t lose’ mindset. When silence follows, they may incorrectly assume agreement. A more purposive mindset is to stay curious, adopt the ‘and’ stance (rather than the ‘but’ stance). This can help to surface hidden assumptions, and allow people the space and time to find their voice.
The workplace goal is to move silence from being an active pursuit of denial, towards awareness of the silence and active pursuit of renewal. This moves people’s energy from denying responsibility to surfacing hidden assumptions, to discussing the undiscussable. It requires meetings to include the space and time to think, so that people can engage in the meaningful activity aligned to the organisation’s purpose. It means people can find their voice and take more accountability.
Silence can help you make every meeting matter.
Jeremy J Lewis
Committed to making every meeting matter