Enjoy the silence, or the power of silence in management

15 November 2022

In our noisy society, where even the smallest object is constantly calling out to us with beeps, blops and dings, silence is disturbing. It evokes emptiness, malaise, ignorance, sometimes even stupidity, and we tend to be suspicious of anyone who remains silent for too long. The urge to break this unbearable silence, to fill it, is fierce, at the risk of speaking to say nothing.

And yet, in many disciplines, silence is what gives a speech its full scope. In theater, it creates emotion; in stand-up comedy, it provokes laughter; and in music, it’s the breaths that give rhythm to the melody. It could be said that nature abhors a vacuum, but silence is not emptiness or nothingness, but rather a place to let what already exists appear. In the corporate world, since this is what we’re interested in, it’s a powerful management tool for fostering creativity and motivation.

Silence for better communication

It may seem counter-intuitive, but silence is a powerful communication tool. As a speaker, there are definite advantages to knowing how to leave gaps in your speech. On the one hand, the pause offers a time for breathing and reflection, during which the speaker can gauge the audience’s reaction to what has just been said. He can then think about how he wants his next ad to look. As the best comedians will tell you, it’s essential, even vital, to listen to your audience, to get a feel for the room, so as not to overdo it. This silence also helps the listener to assimilate what has been said. A few seconds is sometimes all it takes for a good joke to blossom in the audience’s mind, leaving room for laughter. Taking breaks in your speech is therefore perfectly productive, as it gives everyone time to think.

Jacques Pilhan, communications advisor to François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, saw silence as a powerful means of creating desire among citizens, and believed that the stature of a head of state was built, in part, on the rarity of his words. In the corporate world too, the manager whose words are rare but extremely relevant builds a stature as a man or woman of power. In meetings, sometimes the best way to shine is to keep quiet. Keeping silent, listening, reflecting, and then delivering a well-constructed, pertinent speech is real proof of intelligence, and sometimes of legitimacy.

Silence as a creative power

Because silence allows reflection, it can generate new ideas and allow solutions to emerge. It therefore hides real creative potential and should precede any brainstorming session… A calm before the storm.

On the other hand, this gap, because it is sometimes terribly awkward, needs to be filled. A sufficiently long pause at just the right moment can then, as if by magic, bring out hidden truths, ideas not yet fully developed, intuitions not yet fully assumed. In short, silence is a catalyst for revealing what already exists but remains hidden out of modesty, shyness or fear of being judged. The seasoned manager will know how to use these blanks to get his staff to admit what they’re really thinking, to get them to give birth to a delicate request, or even to get them to find a solution of their own that they had come to him for.

Finally, in negotiation, the art of remaining silent is a formidable weapon. When faced with the announcement of a price or a condition, remaining silent destabilizes the other person and can lead them to say more, even too much. By trying to fill the void, he offers his interlocutor valuable information with which to build a counter-argument, if not outright betray his bluff.

Calm and silence, the keys to motivation?

In some cases, silence is a motivating factor. “If you want to motivate, start by keeping quiet,” said Brandon Irwin, a professor at Kansas State University. In an article entitled “Golden Silence”, he demonstrates that sports coaches who are calm, quiet but attentive during a match get better results from their teams. How do you explain this? One of the answers put forward by Brandon Irwin is that the coach, by encouraging with words, actually distracts the players and reduces their ability to draw from within themselves the strength to excel.

Susan Fowler, motivation specialist and professor at the University of San Diego, commented on Brandon Irwin’s study. She adds that, in her opinion, the ranting and cheering of a voluble coach is perceived by his players as an expression of his own motivation and need to win, and not as an aid to help them.

This theory applies perfectly to the business world. Employees won’t be motivated if they feel they’re being manipulated, and if the encouragement doesn’t seem sincere. To support his troops, the manager has every interest in dispensing encouragement and remarks more sparingly, but in a much more sincere and fair manner. A rare but constructive compliment or criticism is more meaningful and has a greater impact on employee motivation. So, managers and leaders, always remember that if speech is silver, silence is gold. Don’t listen to yourself talk too much, and don’t hesitate to take a break to “enjoy the silence” and share it with your teams.

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