Four Ways to Work with Silence

Many of our blog posts focus on what to say and how to say it. In this post, I will highlight when it might be more effective  to say nothing at all. Afterall, “Silence is golden,” right?. Here are four situations when I have found silence to be helpful: 

  1. When the other person is struggling to share

Sometimes you are in a conversation and it is clear someone in the room has a lot to say but they seem to be hesitating. Verbal encouragement like, “just tell us,” or “what do you have to say?” could feel too direct for people who are nervous or hesitant.. One way to communicate that you are ready to listen when they are ready to speak is by remaining silent. 

Remember to soften your body language. Relax your posture and your facial expression. Take some slow and calm breaths. Do everything you can to show non-verbally that you are happy to be patient while the other person puts their words together. 

  1. When you want to show care and compassion

Giving another person uninterrupted time can signify genuine care. The other person has the space and time to feel truly heard, validated, and safe. 

Your body language is important here as well! You can communicate with head nods, a concerned or caring facial expression, and a small lean forward. These  indicate genuine listening and care for the other person.

  1. When the other person is repeating themself

Sometimes people will speak about the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again. You use  all of your active listening tools and still, they keep rehashing the same points. This might indicate that the other person is not ready to let go, move forward, or address the situation. In this case, there is not much you, the listener, can do other than let them run out of steam. Be silent – verbally and non-verbally. Eliminating your side of the conversation will help them wind down. They will notice a difference in the pattern of communication and reflect on their own participation. 

  1. When someone is behaving inappropriately

Similar to the effect in #3, being silent verbally and non-verbally when someone is behaving inappropriately can create enough of a disruption in the communication pattern for them to pause their own engagement. The silence also communicates a boundary that says, “I am not participating or engaging in this behavior.”

Once the inappropriate behavior has ceased, take this time to name the boundary you have and what needs to happen next in the encounter (even if it is that you are going to leave or end the encounter).

Those are only four ways silence can be a useful tool. I am sure there are more! While considering these, please create space for three additional considerations: 

  • Share why! People tend to be very uncomfortable with silence. They might ask you, “Why aren’t you saying anything?” This is when you can authentically explain why:
    • This is really important and I don’t want to get in the way of you sharing.
    • You have shared this four times so far. I am giving you time and space to get it all out.
    • This is inappropriate. I am waiting for you to finish so I can leave.

THEN – be silent again! 

  • Just breathe! When it is hard to resist the discomfort that comes with being silent, focus on your breath. You can count your breaths as an activity. Try to count to 20 and see how far you get before the conversation shifts. 
  • Identities! Like with all skills, who we are and how we engage with them impact how effective the tools are. I identify as a white, cisgendered woman. The way I use these tools have been effective for me in these scenarios. People with other identities may have other experiences. Please be considerate of this and tailor the tools to work best for you. 

If you want more on being silent, visit the Ombuds Institute website and sign up for a free video and worksheet to help you feel more comfortable and develop your effectiveness using silence in your workspace. The video is tailored to ombuds, but the skills apply to everyone!

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds Lead at Pinterest

10 thoughts on “Four Ways to Work with Silence”

  1. Excellent suggestions! Attentive listening is so important when a visitor is sharing. Listening to gain information rather than listening to react…

    I have tissues on the table as well as chocolates and hard candies. I frequently nod my head. if tears are flowing I’ll push the tissue box over to the visitor. I have learned that silence is frequently something most people are not comfortable with. The more comfortable I am with it helps me learn more about the concerns of the visitor. This is the work of an Ombuds. TY Teresa.

  2. Jennifer Sullivan

    Thank you for this! It’s sometimes hard to remember that silence can be a useful tool as a listener too, and giving people space to fully express themselves is a powerful form of caring.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top