The Power of the Pause
Silence speaks volumes; use it as a tool.
“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
A re you afraid of silence? If you are, you’re not alone. Many people are uncomfortable with silence and want to fill it with noise. But silence can be a powerful device in your speaking and leadership toolbox.
Eminent orators have long understood the power of not saying anything. “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation,” said Cicero, the Roman philosopher and statesman. As a longtime career consultant and veteran Toastmaster, I know that employing the tool of silence offers many benefits, and it can be deftly incorporated into speeches, negotiations and conversations.
The benefits of silence can begin before you even utter a word. Rodney Fisher, ACB, uses silence to gain his audience’s attention before he begins a speech. “When there is an extended silence, people look up, possibly thinking that something is wrong,” he says. “When we make eye contact, I see a look of recognition, even curiosity from listeners. This makes me feel engaged with them and makes the speech that much more enjoyable to deliver.”
Silence can provide an opportunity for speakers to focus on the audience, their presentation or their own presence.
Fisher, a member of the U.S. Senate club in Washington, D.C., says the silence before his first words “helps me to focus. I look at the audience’s friendly faces and remember that these are people who want me to succeed.”
Taking a momentary pause before talking, or even during a speech, can help you stay calm and channel any anxiety into energy. It also helps draw an audience’s attention and provide time for them to think about or react to what you just said.
You might ask a rhetorical question, share a dramatic or powerful statement, tell a joke or make a startling statement. By pausing and being silent immediately following any of these types of commentswhat you just said without missing what’s coming next. The silence can be planned,
or you might need to pause unexpectedly. Either way, it’s important to understand how a little silence goes a long way in delivering your message with impact.
In their book Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever advocate using silence as a negotiation tactic. “Many people feel uncomfortable with silence and talk to break the tension, and end up saying too
much or backtracking from what they want,” they write. “Don’t rashly answer for the other negotiator if he’s taking his time responding: Give him time to reflect and wait to hear what he has to say.”
A critical time to pause during negotiations is after you make your pitch. Don’t undermine yourself by filling the silence with non-essential talk or, worse,substitute to what you just proposed. Don’t get antsy and utter apologetic or defensive words. By staying silent, you affirm what you just said, and you can focus on how the person is reacting.
Another time for silence is after someone makes you an offer or suggests an alternative proposal to your pitch. Take time to absorb what the person is saying. Think about the offer and be aware of your instincts. If you’re too busy talking orthinking about what you’ll say next, you might miss something.
In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement
Without Giving In, Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton note that “without communication, there is no negotiation.”
The authors say people don’t often listen well when negotiating, and they recommend silence to promote active listening. “Listening enables you to understand their perceptions, feel their emotions, and hear what they are trying to say,” they write. “Active listening improves not only what
you hear, but also what they say.”
Silence and active listening are also instrumental during professional and personal conversations, both formal and informal. This was noted long ago by Greek philosopher Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Balazs Gergely, vice president membership for Budapest Toastmasters clubin Hungary, recognizes that silence has benefits beyond speeches and has incorporated it into his work life. As a supervisor, he uses it to develop better relationships with his team members. “I used silence when I had their individual performance review discussions,” he says. “After we discussed his or her performance, I intentionally stayed silent. I was surprised how they opened up.
They shared very personal things with me, which I believe was purely caused by shutting my mouth and opening my ears.” Being silent after you ask a question also allows the listener time to formulate the most effective answer, whether in a job interview, business meeting or Table Topics session. If you are on the receiving end of a question, give yourself time to consider what the best answer might be instead of immediately replying with an answer. Those extra five seconds or so might mean the difference between an adequate response and one that impresses the people in the room.
The next time you give a speech, try adding a brief silence at the lectern after being introduced and before speaking. Or plan to inject some pauses into your speech. If you’re negotiating an agreement, wait a bit before responding. And during business or personal conversations, pay attention to how engaged you are and focus on others while they are talking. The more you use your silence as a tool, the more comfortable you will be with it.
JENNIFER L. BLANCK, DTM, is a member of Budapest Toastmasters in Hungary and the founding Director of Career Services at the Central European University’s new School of Public Policy.