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Silence is Golden!

PGP Mediation
by Phyllis G. Pollack

In cleaning up my office so it could be repainted and re-carpeted, I came upon an article in the July 2018 ABA Journal (volume 104) entitled, “Sounds of Silence” by Philip N. Meyer (pp. 22-23.)  ( “ABA Article”).

The ABA article notes that a pause at the right moment can be a very powerful tool. It cites an oral argument in which the issue was whether the police had waited long enough after knocking before entering an apartment to execute a search warrant. The police had waited 25 seconds which the defense argued was insufficient.  To make the point, counsel for the District of Columbia, started the oral argument by stating, “May it please the court….”. He then paused, precisely for 25 seconds, which to everyone else seemed like an eternity. As the  appellate judges were about to break the very uncomfortable silence, counsel began to speak, noting that the silence was the same 25 seconds that his client had waited before entering the apartment. Counsel had made his point and won the appeal. (Id. at 22.)

An article cited in the ABA Article discusses the different uses of silence. In “’Talk  Less’: Eloquent Silence in the Rhetoric of Lawyering”, Bret Rappaport, (67 Journal of Legal Education 286-314 (No. 1, 2017), (“Journal”) discusses one type of silence, or what the Greeks called “Eloquent Silence”: “… the nonspeaker intends to be communicative by her silence, or… to make an argument.” (Id. at 292.)

On a cognitive level, silence or pauses are important as they allow the brain to process and “think” about what is being said. While our System 1 thinking is automatic and thus does not require silence (and is also prone to mistakes), our System 2 being deliberative, slow, and methodical, needs the silence in which to work; It needs to take in what is being said and then process and evaluate it. ( Id at 294-296.) He cites one study which showed that the longer a teacher paused between asking a question and picking a student for an answer, the more positive and thoughtful were the responses. (Id. at 294-297, 296.):

Silence slows things down (triggering System2), allowing more effective learning to take place. …Think time allows the listener to make connections and detect patterns… -and wait time allows for personal, purposeful, meaningful and relevant learning. Silence is wait time’s solitary ingredient. (Id at 296-7.)

There are various types of Eloquent Silence. It may be a single pause before a word or phrase (i.e., a pregnant pause) or the silence may occur after a phrase or word (i.e., a dramatic pause.) Or, the pause may occur both before and after a phrase or group of words which create a “chunk”. Or, finally, the silence consists of simply saying nothing. (Id. at 299, 300-312.)

An example of the pregnant pause was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous statement, “the only thing we have to fear is [3.5 second pause] fear itself.” (Id at 301.) That pause just before the last two words had great effect in calming a nation mired in the Great Depression.

In contrast, the dramatic pause occurs after the important wording. It allows the listener to reflect on what was just said and to digest it. It allows the words to sink in with the listener. An  example was the eulogy that former President Obama gave for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight parishioners killed by Dylann Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After he concluded his remarks, Mr. Obama waited 13 seconds-to let his words sink in- before transitioning slowly to a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” (ABA Article at 22.)

Placing a pause every so often also has an effect. Called “chunking”, the pause is often placed every seven words (plus or minus 2) providing the needed emphasis to particular words. (Journal at 308. )  The Pledge of Allegiance provides a good example:

I pledge allegiance [pause] to the Flag [pause] of the United States of America, [pause] and to the Republic [pause] for which it stands, [pause] one Nation [pause] under God [pause], indivisible, [pause] with liberty [pause] and justice for all. (Id. at 307)   

To me, the most important  Eloquent Silence is simply saying nothing. As many negotiators have learned, listening and saying nothing is key. (Id. at 309-312.) By staying silent and simply listening, the other side will often “leak” information either verbally or non-verbally through changes in voice, and pitch. What I have found, is that a well-placed silence – simply asking a question and letting it hang there, will after a few seconds make the other party uncomfortable and prone to say what she is really thinking or what is really troubling her about the matter. Most people can not tolerate silence for more than a few seconds and feel the need to fill the space and say something. Often what is said is the innermost fears, anxiety, frustration or the real reason that is causing the dispute or impasse.

So—silence cannot only be golden but a very effective means in getting to the heart of a matter quickly and thus, being able to resolve it. So- say nothing and you will speak volumes.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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