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10 Things to Know About Silence in Communication

By Susan Dunn, MA Psychology, Emotional Intellig

One of the most important parts of any conversation is the silence. Silence can serve many functions in a conversation and how you manage it determines your level of sophistication.

Here are some points to keep in mind about silence in communication.

1. Allowing silence in a conversation puts pressure on the other person.

It's conventional in the US not to allow any sort of extended silence in a conversation. Therefore, to allow one puts pressure on the other person to "fill air time". Some interviewers, for instance, use this technique to see what will happen. Often the person will "spill - saying exactly the thing they didn't want to say.

2. Silence can indicate hostility.

Withdrawing, "stonewalling, and pouting in silence are ways some people handle anger. Such a silence can be pulsating with bad feelings and elicit anger on the part of the other person.

3. Silence can indicate disagreement.

While it's almost never an indication of indifference, silence can indicate that the other person is having negative emotions. When we experience anger, fear, or embarrassment, our thinking brain shuts down. We sit there fuming, unable to speak; enraged and unable to find words; afraid and scared speechless. Some people are "flooded with these emotions, and unable to respond.

4. Silence can indicate profoundness, such as awe or horror.

Sometimes when we're listening to someone else, we hear something that leaves us speechless because it really goes beyond words. Listening to someone talk about a dreadful trauma they"ve endured, or a beautiful, almost-sacred interaction with another human being, or a description of an awesome natural event such as a sunset or a volcano eruption are examples. Somehow when we listen to such things, the ordinary "Oh and "Wow and "That's awesome don't seem enough, and so we fall silent.

5. Silence can indicate respect.

In some cultures more than others, silence indicates respect. A young person may be expected to approach an older person or a person in authority and remain silent until recognized, acknowledged and spoken to.

6. Silence can indicate contemplation.

The more introverted your communication partner, the more likely they will think before they speak. Extraverts discover what they're thinking and how they feel by talking. Introverts figure it all out inside their own head and heart before giving voice to it.

7. Silence can be intentional rudeness.

Because of the nature of normal conversation in the US, allowing an extended silence can be perceived as rudeness. It can also be meant that way. Refusing to reply to the other person is a way of ignoring them.

8. Silence can be the creation of a listening space.

When you are profoundly listening to someone, you create an open space for them to talk into that's almost palpable. Good listeners know how to do this, and it can be learned. It's an openness that you transmit through nonverbal means.

9. Silence can be an indication of empathy.

When we're really tuning in to how the other person feels, we're listening more to the tone of their voice, cadence and speed rather than the actual words, so reply with words may not be the most appropriate response. Sometimes sounds are more attuned - a murmur, a sigh, sucking in the breath in shock, soothing sounds, clucking (tsk tsk), or shaking the head and going uh, uh, uh.

10. How you manage silence in conversation is an important part of emotional intelligence.

Excellent communicators can allow silence when it's effective or called for; can avoid being pressured into "spilling when silence is used manipulatively; offer silence as a gift or sign of respect; interpret the silence of others appropriately; understand how other cultures use silence; mindfully regulate the use of silence; and are comfortable with silence and understand its many uses.

About the Author
Susan Dunn, MA Psychology, Emotional Intelligence Coach, I help people become better communicators and develop their emotional intelligence through coaching, Internet courses and ebooks. Susan is the author of "Nonverbal Communication."

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