Silence…A Popular Communication Strategy

Understanding the Positive and Negative

The term “silence is golden” definitely wasn’t created in the workplace; “silence is uncertain” is a more appropriate label when it comes to work environments. It is important to understand why silence is happening and what is behind it when it is used as a workplace communication tactic.

Silence StrategiesAn interesting fact about silence is that its presence is most always (about 90% of the time) intentional rather than accidental. The outcome of silence is often (also around 90%) negative rather than positive. Why is something with such a high probability of negativity so prevalent in teams, departments and companies?

Whether intentional or unintentional, positive or negative, silence is a common strategy that gets in the way. Companies may try to address the improper use of silence by asking consultants to administer one of a plethora of personality tests designed to measure people on a long list of characteristics: introvert/extrovert, creative/analytical, logical/intuitive or heck, even green/red.

The hope is that discovering how people operate under most circumstances and giving them a “fun” label or “interesting” typology will shine a light on bad habits and errors in communication and magically solve the problem of silence. Unfortunately, without ongoing skill building to change communication habits, these labels are easily forgotten leaving people where they were previously – in a place where silence is a negative and a challenge.

It is important to help people understand when silence can be used positively as a communication strategy. There are three instances when silence is a good technique:

Exasperated Conversation:

In this situation, frustration is running high and silence is a good option because it creates a break for emotions to cool. This often allows for reflection so the conversation can be tried again later.

Cautious Conversation:

Here, silence is used because those involved are unsure how to respond. It prevents blurting out inappropriate words or responding in an over reactive manner. It’s a case of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Inviting Conversation:

More information is needed in this case and silence by one person creates a gap. This gap often leads to discomfort for the other person and he/she is compelled to talk to fill the void. This is a proven police interrogation technique as well as a therapeutic strategy.

In these situations the intentional use of silence can improve the outcome of the conversation. The end result is positive because communication continues and silence is a tool rather than a barrier.

On the flip side, the negative use of silence can yield outcomes that do more harm than good. There are four instances when silence causes barriers:

Avoiding Conversation:

Avoidance-based silence is common where there have been problems in the past (like a grudge or resentment) or communication with a certain type of person creates anxiety (boss, stranger, gender, culture, etc.). The intent of silence in this situation is to avoid uncomfortable emotions by preventing or stopping communication all together.

Note: The recipient may be unaware of the strategy and may initiate conversation anyway, unknowingly creating further negative emotions or reactions.

Delaying Conversations:

In this case, silence is an attempt to create a sense of power over the conversation and hence over the other person or team. The intent here is to withhold information in order to feel in control, important or in demand.

Note: The recipient may not recognize this strategy and may repeat the request or give up on receiving a reply.

Payback Conversations:

The intent of silence in this situation is to get back at someone after being treated badly or being ignored. This is a “tit for tat” strategy and silence is used as a means to even the score or lash out from being hurt.

Note: The recipient may not be aware of the past wrong and therefore is not aware the strategy is retaliation.

Passive-Aggressive Conversations:

Here, silence is used to convey agreement or acceptance, but the actions that follow fall short of fulfilling the agreement. There appears to be an innocent lack of follow through (passive part) which is actually intentional and meant to make others angry (aggressive part). The user of this strategy will deny agreement and regularly blames others for a project’s failure.

Note: The recipient may not realize this passive-aggressive method is being used and may overreact in anger or doubt their own understanding of the agreement.

In these situations, the use of silence is intentional but acts as a barrier to stop talk or replace it with negative emotions and reactions. It is worth noting these four uses of silence are not usually obvious to the others involved which renders the technique useless. It is not until the “silencer” shares the real problem that good communication and effective conversation can be restored.

When silence is used as a catalyst good communication occurs. When silence is an intentional negative strategy, it creates further silence, negative reactions or angry feelings.

To manage silence better, three steps are needed:

Be Aware:

Recognize intentional (non-accidental) delays in responses, mixed messages and pure avoidance.

Be Clear & Persistent:

Be clear on requests, set a deadline for reply and when silence occurs resend the first request with a reminder.

Be Inquisitive:

When silence gets in the way, simply ask about it. Here is an example:

“I see you have chosen not to reply to me, can you please tell me what the problem is?”

The first step is easy because it increases self-awareness and no longer gives or accepts excuses. The second step may require a review of messages to ensure they are as clear and concise as the sender intends. The third step is the toughest because it necessitates assertiveness as well as some confidence and comfort with confrontation. It is not easy to ask for an unknown issue or problem to be put on the table.

There can be uncertainty, apprehension and fear of difficult topics or conversation… hence the preference for silence. If it is easier to achieve step three through written communication, do so. Any method of communication used to improve difficult conversations is a good idea.

Good luck tackling negative silence strategies and improving communication. If you want help to uncover silence and help employees converse in a healthy and ongoing way check out our Building Better Bosses Program or contact us at or 604-349-8660. We look forward to learning about silence in your work place and replacing it with great 2-way communication.

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This entry was posted by Pam Paquet and is filed under Business Assertiveness, Employee Training. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.