Effective communication is one of the most important differentiators between a vital team and a toxic one.  I dedicate a lot of time in team interventions to the skills of communication because it’s more likely that team members are in tension because of poor communication than because of malicious intent. That is, most interpersonal conflict on teams comes from misunderstandings.

There is plenty to work on when it comes to communication.

  • How to make your intent more transparent
  • How to speak so people will stay open to your ideas
  • How to ensure your body language is congruent with what you’re saying
  • How to listen for the feelings and values underlying  the description of the facts
  • How to validate your interpretation of a message

…and on and on.

But here’s something we don’t talk enough about: How do you interpret silence?

I was inspired to write this post by a couple of recent experiences.

Silence equals agreement?

A CEO and the VP were talking through some impediments to their effective communication.  The CEO volunteered that when the VP was silent, he assumed he was aligned. It turned out that the VP was feeling steamrolled by the CEO and his silence was in deference and not in agreement. This was a costly misinterpretation the CEO admitted he had made often.

Out of sight, out of mind

In a session with a different organization, the President was behaving badly; criticizing the conversation his team was having and even complaining about the process we were using. Only several hours later did one of his team members admit that he had been keeping silent to punish the team leader for his juvenile behavior. The team leader laughed and said that he hadn’t even noticed.

How do you interpret silence?

What is your assumption about the silence of a team member?  Do you make the same assumption for everyone?  Or do you interpret silence differently from different people? From the introverts? From the extroverts? From more junior people? From more tangential members of the team?

Think about your own interpretations of silence. Then challenge yourself to think differently. What if you’re wrong?  How would you behave differently if you knew that your teammate’s silence masked frustration or a sense of powerlessness?  What if their silence was intentional and aimed at boycotting the conversation? What if it was a good predictor that your project would fail because of covert resistance?

The best way to understand silence is to ask about it. NOT with a patronizing comment like “Soooo, you’re awfully quiet.”  First, try something gentle. “We haven’t heard from you on this issue.” For most people, the social pressure of calling out their silence will end it.

You can also be more direct. “We haven’t heard much from you today. How are you thinking about this issue?” Alternatively, you can say “I don’t know how to interpret your silence,” or “I’m confused by your silence.” If you think there’s something particularly sensitive going on, you can ask these questions privately outside of the meeting.

Regardless of where or how you ask, listen very carefully to how the person responds.  What do they tell you with what they say; with how they say it; with what they don’t say; and with their tone and body language?

Conspicuous silence contains as much meaning as any other form of communication. As with any effective two-way communication, you need to be aware of the impact that communication is having on you and you need to validate the message you are receiving with the sender.

Further Reading

The Right Words to Say to show you’re listening (video and worksheet)

The 1 thing you can do today to improve communication

Are you a good listener?

2 Responses to How do you interpret silence?

  1. Aimee White

    Hi Liane – great post! I find this topic fascinating and I’d love to dig down on the issue of introversion in team-based work cultures. I’ve been reading about it lately (mostly notably in Susan Cain’s book “Quiet”) – and how sometimes there is silence simply because introverts need to process information in their own way/on their own time . If given some time to think over the issue in the quiet of their office, introverts can have some powerful ideas and feedback, but if put on the spot, that feedback may not come to the surface. How would you suggest team-based cultures adapt to allow their introverts some time for reflection?

  2. Pylin Chuapetcharasopon

    Good points, Liane! I also want to point out that there are also cultural differences in what silence means, at least in negotiation. For example, if your negotiator is Japanese, them being silent probably means they’re agreeing or just taking the time to digest the information. However, from a Western perspective, silence (in this context) usually means disagreement or being unsure about what was just presented.

    Aimee: I’ve had a similar experience leading a small team. One team member really needs time to process information but once he does, he has really good insights. However, in the beginning, I would go around the table asking if each person had any comments and he would be silent. But I noticed that after the meeting was over, he would go over to talk to another colleague about it. So I noted that and the next time we had a meeting I asked each person if they had a comment, and although he didn’t say anything right away, I waited a (seemingly) looong time (from my point of view) but finally he did speak and made a good contribution to our discussion.

    I think it’s about acknowledging individual differences and creating allowances for that. But if the team is time strapped, perhaps suggest everyone to write any other thoughts to the entire team after the meeting BUT create a norm for it. For example, “Thank you for the discussion today! But if anyone of you was still processing all the information and would like to send their thoughts to the team after this meeting, that is welcomed.”

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