Silence is the most difficult form of communication to understand. But it does communicate something that is more often than not misinterpreted. Among top management teams of transnational or transcultural companies, I frequently find that even the most successful, talented and brilliant executives, in spite of being efficient communicators, often do not understand the multiple meanings of silence and decide to interpret that it means the same as they themselves mean when they are silent.
Silence can have the intention of showing respect, avoiding conflict or embarrassment, defending one’s self, exercising power, manipulating or agreeing with what was said. Silence is the intentional act of not speaking that does, in fact, have many very different meanings:
“I don’t understand”: I don’t know what you mean.
“No”: but I want to keep the relationship intact and to say “no” to you might not seem polite.
“Yes”: agreed…everything is OK.
“Everyone already knows”: implied or already agreed upon.
“This is private”: There is not enough trust or confidentiality in this setting.
“I got it/did it”: It is insulting that you repeat it.
“I don’t want to speak until…”: Something is missing…I need more information.
“My comment might be taken as a commitment”: To contribute to this conversation might convey a commitment on my part.
“I’m thinking”: Some thought-processing styles require more time than others.
“I’m asleep!”: It’s been a boring meeting.
The truly effective executive will always be patient with silence and if it persists, initiate a meaningful conversation that may begin with: “Can you help me understand the meaning of your silence?”