We are inundated with uber-fast and self-serving speaking every day. Can a simple pause or complete silence be a valuable tool in business communications to help balance this trend? We think so. 

How unexpected silence affects us.

Have you ever been on the phone explaining a situation to a client when the conversation takes an awkward turn? We ramble on, yet there is only silence on the other end. The longer it stretches, the easier it is to think the listener must not agree or, worse, completely disapproves of our explanation. No “uh-huh” or “go on” or “I see” phrases reach our ears—just silence. Finally, we run out of things to say and pause. It’s still crickets at the other end. We imagine the worst: they don’t buy our reasoning and now doubt our integrity. We’ve lost a valuable client. Our business relationship is over. We are ruined and will have to leave town. The end of the world is near.

It’s when we venture an intrepid “hello, are you still there?” that we realize the line is dead. Our phone rings, and it’s our client apologizing for inadvertently hitting disconnect just as we were about to explain what happened to their order. “Could you please tell me again?”

Huge relief. We calmly explain the situation and the proposed solution. All ends well. 

What happened here? Why do we feel such trepidation and discomfort when faced with silence? As humans, we seek signals of understanding from others and seek confirmation our thinking is solid. When there are no cues from the other person in a conversation, it can cause uneasiness and trigger self-doubt about our position. 

Unfortunately, in our fast-paced environment, pausing to contemplate an issue has fallen out of favour. Instead, instant reactions mirroring the pace of social media commentary have become the expectation for both the speaker and listener. 

Stand out from the crowd by using silence as a powerful communication tool.

The art of the pause

A slight pause before responding is a great practice. By not mentally jumping ahead and formulating an instant response, we can pay more attention to what someone is saying and listen to them instead of just waiting for our turn to talk. This doesn’t happen when we constantly interject, cut someone off, pepper them with questions, or answer before giving them a chance to finish their thought. 

Silence gives you time to think, to consider an answer before responding. And there are significant benefits. 

It shows respect for others. 

Instant reactions can be dismissive and devalue the opinion of the other person. Even if you disagree with them, waiting a few seconds before responding suggests you have at least given the issue some thought.  You’ll build a reputation as a thinker, not a reactor.

It discourages conversation hijackers. 

We all know them: people who hijack conversations. A discussion with them is rarely productive, full of interruptions, and is not enjoyable. They constantly cut you off and change the focus of the discussion to suit themselves. 

When you next encounter a conversation hijacker, try silence. Every time they interrupt, stay quiet – don’t try to compete; let them talk.  The key is not to lose track of the point you were making when you were interrupted. Once the hijacker comes up for air, return to your original thought with an “as I was saying” remark as if the interruption never occurred. 

Accelerate this commentary as the interruptions continue, culminating in “I’d like to talk with you about this more but find it difficult to have a quality conversation when I’m interrupted so often.” Or “I value your point of view. Now I’d like to share mine if you’re willing to listen.”

It works in negotiations.

You’ve just explained your services and price structure to a prospective client. She responds the cost is too high for her budget. Hold back the instinct to react immediately with facts and figures to justify your well-researched pricing model. 

 Try this instead: Don’t respond right away. You can say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” then pause and wait for her to speak again. You know your prices are fair for the work involved. 

There’s an excellent chance your lack of an immediate defensive reaction will work in your favour. You’ll come across as confident and respectful with no hint of desperation for a sale. By providing her with a few seconds to think it through, she will likely counter with a question to confirm the extent of services included in your price. That’s a win for you.  

You are at your most powerful when you are most silent. People never expect silence. They expect words, motion, defense, back and forth. They expect to leap into the fray. They are ready, fists up, words hanging, leaping from their mouths.

Alison McGhee