When a business owner works with employees in order to grow their soft skills, one area of focus is often communication. A business owner wants an employee to ask the right questions, provide concise answers, and even diffuse an upset customer or vendor when the situation demands it. Moreover, good communication training focuses heavily on listening skills.
Still, one communication skill that is often overlooked is the use of silence.
When I was at Microsoft, we hired smartwho were highly energetic and passionate about what they did. This passion and energy, however, often resulted in too much talking.
In my circles we had a saying that went like this: “When there is silence in a room, the average Microsoft employee feels obligated to fill it.” To be fair, this isn’t isolated to the corporate culture at Microsoft. This is often the case in any environment where employees are skillful and passionate about what they do.
The first goal in working with an employee on their communication is to get them to talk less and listen more. An advanced technique teachesto be silent even when it is their turn to talk—silence can actually be used as a strategic communications tool.
Most communicators are not prepared to deal with silence. Silence often provokes more communication, more information, and even a revelation of insecurity. Silence can create leverage and power on behalf of the listener. It can also slow the pace of a conversation or even open it up to others in the room.
However, there is a fine line between using silence as a tool and flat out being passive-aggressive.
Using Silence in Negotiations
How often have you sat through a long-windedpitch where you feel the need to help the sales person clarify what they are asking for or summarize what you think you heard at the end? Unfortunately, this can lead to even a further communications gap. In some cases, a brief pause or simple silence on your behalf will get them talking even more.
One advantage here is that they will provide additional information that could clarify the proposition. They could also reveal key information that is strategic to your negotiation. Do they add any indication that the price is flexible or some indication as of their cost basis?
In cases where silence leads to even less clarity, you can simplify the winded conversation with “What is the ‘ask’ here?” or “Can you tell me in one sentence what your product does as I’m struggling with the concept?” This means, “I hear all of this information but I’m not sure what you want from me or what you are selling.”
Using Silence in the Workplace
Silence is also a very effective tool via electronic communications, especially when dealing with a poor digital listener or ineffective communicator. A simple boss-to-employee email asking if the employee completed a task can result in one of three responses: the task is completed; confirmation that it is not completed but will be completed by a certain date; or the more common long-winded response as to why the task isn’t completed, complemented with a laundry list of excuses.
A manager should not feel obligated to engage in the back-and-forth communication that is to come with the last possible outcome. Silence will often cause the employee to rethink their response or simply invoke nervousness that results in further communication.
Don’t play the game. End the digital communication and force the conversation to a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Be clear that you are switching communications since you were not given an answer to your question. Not only will this force issues to the surface, but it will also train employees to your style of digital communication.
There is no sense in you as a manager subjecting yourself to carpel tunnel syndrome because you are trying to cope with ineffective communications over text messaging or email; and employees should use the time they are taking to type an extended excuse email to complete the task.
Work with your employees on their listening skills. Refine their ability to provide concise responses or ask concise questions. Help them to improve their communications through tools such as silence or other pointed techniques that get communications back on track.
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