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The Art of Silence

Conflicts of Interest Blog by Vivian Scott

Who here hasn’t walked away from a fight and immediately started thinking of all the things you should have said? Let’s be honest. After a heated exchange we’re mentally churning away because we want to find just the right zinger to show the other guy who’s who. Sometimes we think of a “good one” later and sometimes we think of a low blow that we smugly deliver in the middle of the argument with great gusto. So proud! So, did we win?

When you talk over someone, serve up cutting remarks with dramatic flair, and try to out shout the other person, do you win? If you’re really so interested in “winning,” why then behave in a way that doesn’t get you any closer to what you really want? It might be better to think a little more strategically about when to zip it than to spend time thinking about the next zinger to dish out. Trust me when I tell you that practicing the art of silence at just the right time could benefit you. Here are a few good places to start.

When the other person is very emotional he’s not going to hear what you’re saying, so why not listen. Any time someone is crying, screaming, turning red, or having difficulty breathing and talking at the same, just be quiet. Let him get through what it is he’s trying to say and listen for clues to what’s really bothering him. He may not even know what the real issue is and allowing him the space to sort through the emotion will help him get there faster. Plus, when emotion is high, reasoning is low.

When the other person is repeating herself she’s trying to tell you something. As a mediator who is witness to a lot of arguments, I know that this is the easiest clue to overlook but, quite honestly, it’s also the easiest clue to recognize if you’re willing to pay attention. If you’re talking, you may not hear how many times she’s said the same thing or you may become unnecessarily irritated at the repetition. Ask more questions about the thing she’s repeating when it’s your turn to talk.

When you truly need to consider what another person is saying, start the work early on. If you’re supposed to be coming up with ideas to resolve a specific situation, doing all the talking means you’re missing out on 50% of the ideas. Of course you’re not going to agree with everything he says, but what’s the harm in letting him know you’re considering his proposals. You never know what’s going to spark your next big idea so why not let the other person provide a little inspiration. Besides, coming in with only one idea and a fixed position is boring!

As arguments go, there’s a lot of stuff flying back and forth. Some of it is helpful and some of it is, well, destructive. If neither of you are willing to practice the art of silence, you won’t get to the important stuff. If it feels better to ask for an agreement that both of you will have uninterrupted time in which to share your perspective, then ask for that. It’s a pretty common practice in mediations because it works. Allowing someone to get it out—all of it out—is a strategic move. It’s not weak to listen; it’s smart.

Now, for a little warning. There’s a big difference between practicing the art of silence and being a jerk. While you listen, throw in a few nods, the occasional “uh huh”, and keep good eye contact. That’s the art of silence. If you listen with your arms crossed, refuse to make eye contact, or use dagger eyes to stare down the other person, that’s practicing the art of war. Big difference.


Vivian Scott

Vivian Scott is a Professional Certified Mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies.  She spent many years in the competitive and often stress-filled world of high tech marketing where she realized resolving conflict within the confines of office politics was paramount to success.  Through creative solutions… MORE >

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