Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking

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 (Oct 1)
Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking
Part Three: Silence in Consensus
Part Four: Silence on Email

In this second installment I'll explore the kind of Silence where a person intends to speak (or is at least open to it), but is just not there yet. This is where the silent person is actively working with what's going on and is not shut down. I think there's a sequence of three questions that a person is addressing
(or ought to be) in this situation. Though not everyone asks all of these questions (in fact, you probably know people who don't even stop to ask any of them), I suggest:

Step 1: What Do I Think (or Feel)?
A person's response to an occurrence, or to a comment or revelation is not always automatic (thank goodness). Sometimes a person needs to roll it over, let it sink in, or chew on it before knowing their mind (or knowing the response in their belly). There are times when this can take hours or even days, depending on how familiar or scary the territory is, and how high the stakes run.

Note also that knowing one's mind can be quite a different thing than knowing one's feelings. Which kind of response is called for? Maybe you're unsure. It can all be pretty confusing.

However, let's suppose you've figured this out. Now it's on to the next question:

Step 2: What's Appropriate for This
Regardless of whether you're in an casual conversation or a formal meeting, there is a context that should be taken into account when deciding what to share. Maybe it's TMI (too much information—not every audience is the right one for certain levels or kinds of sharing). Maybe you'd like to share but you're scared or unsure.

However, even after you've sorted this out, there remains a final question:

Step 3: What Should I Say Now?
Maybe you're response is off topic. Maybe you'd like to share at this level, but your audience isn't there yet. Maybe there's not sufficient trust to reveal your response. Maybe the right people aren't in the room.

• • •
This outlines one strain of why people are silent—even when that's not their intent, and they're hoping to break through. It can be a reason why it's good that people are silent (rather than blurting out the first thing that pops into their head). Of course, if you're on the receiving end of the silence, it may not be apparent that this is what's going on. You may be imagining much less productive possibilities.

The good news is, if you're unsure, you can ask.
If the silence signals distress, you're likely to get a surly response… or none. If, on the other hand, the silent person is on the road to speaking, you're likely to get a more even-handed response such as, "I'm thinking about it," or "Give me a while to sort this out."

A lot of times, the ambiguity of Silence is compounded by the people observing silence in others not talking about how they're interpreting it. When everyone is guessing, it's that much harder to get it right!

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