Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part One: Conversation

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation
Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking
Part Three: Silence in Consensus
Part Four: Silence on Email

It seems to me that the place to start is by exploring the many-faceted role of silence in informal conversation, which is the fundamental building block of all communication—it's how most of us communicate at least 90% of the time, and it's where we form our communication habits. Thus, this opening piece will be on Silence in Conversation. Here are seven different ways that silence manifests in everyday face-to-face discourse:

A. When people are lost in the conversation
There is a tendency for many of us to get silent when we find the conversation too complicated, too fast, or too esoteric. We also tend to get silent if we're distracted, tired, or didn't hear what others have said. While this may or may not be irritating (see G below), the conversation has passed you by and you're responding passively.

B. When people go inward
There are times when a person gets quiet as they take in deeply what another has said, chewing it over in their mind (and body) to see what fits. This is an active response; just not a verbal one (at least for now). There may be a response coming later, or maybe not. There is an exploration going on (often related to insight) and the silent person may have no idea at the outset whether that inquiry will lead to a sharing.

C. When people are unsure how to respond
While related closely with B, in this case the silent person is actively trying to form a response, and is only quiet because of uncertainty about what to say or how to say it. The person knows that some kind of response is called for and is groping to figure out the best way to proceed. It may include elements of frustration or fear (see G below).
Sometimes the speaker understands this is happening and it leads to a pregnant pause, affording the respondent time to gestate their response. Sometimes the speaker is oblivious, as when there are too many people in the conversation to track them all, or when the speaker is self-absorbed.

D. When people are bored or uninterested
Essentially, this is when people check out and their attention drifts. It's different from A in that they don't care. While this is generally a passive response, there can sometimes be an aggressive edge here, where the silent person is hoping to starve out the topic by intentionally denying the speaker fuel.

E. When people are observing or being receptive
This is the situation where the conversation is going fine, the listener is engaged and simply doesn't have anything to say at that point. This is an active silence, often characterized by a nodding head.

F. When people are enjoying a stretch of companionable non-talking
This phenomenon is most common when people are together without time pressure, or without the desire or need to communicate.
It can occur regularly among close friends or partners as a way they enjoy time together (or among more casual acquaintances on a long car ride). Periods of silence can also naturally arise among people working together. While it may or may not be connecting, it's peaceful.

G. When people are reactive
I've saved this one for last. This is where the person is emotionally triggered. Unfortunately, it can be the outward manifestation of a wider variety of feelings than prizes in a box of Crack Jack. Included are:
o Anger (the person is upset, yet unable or unwilling to express it)
o Frustration (the person may be tongue-tied, or uncertain what to say that will illuminate what's happening)
o Fear (the person feels unsafe and is quiet to protect themselves or others)
o Sullenness (the person does not speak because they're sulking; they feel isolated or misunderstood and are withdrawing their energy)
o Depression (the person lowers their energy and gets passive in response to despair, or feeling overwhelmed)
o Overwhelm (the person is experiencing an intensity of feelings—it could anything: rapture, acute pain, massive confusion, rage—such that they are paralyzed in the moment)

As you might imagine, more than one of these feelings may be in play at the same time, greatly complicating the diagnosis.

• • •
Even if you assume that I've fully delineated the main reasons for people being silent in conversation (which I doubt) and I've convinced you that it's complicated, it's actually much worse, because many of these meanings can be combined. Talk about a hair ball!

For the most part we depend on non-verbal clues to help categorize which of the above meanings to assign to a person's silence. Often, facial expressions alone will tip you off. However, depending on propinquity, perspicacity, and lighting, it doesn't take much to get it wrong. Whence the popular admonition: when in doubt, check it out.

In fact, given how much of a rat's nest this can be, it's often a good idea to check it out, even if you aren't in doubt, the better to establish a sound foundation for where you want to take the conversation next. Keep in mind that just because you're talking doesn't mean you're communicating. Just a thought.

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