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  • Alison Seddon

Leadership and Silence

Why doesn't my direct report say anything to me?

One of the ways I work with clients is to ‘rehearse’ an important conversation they have coming up. Very often when we explore the challenges they face in having the conversation my client will tell me that the other person ‘doesn’t say much’ or will say ‘I can’t get anything out of them.’

When we practice the conversation I usually discover two things:

  • Lots of closed questions

  • Not enough silence

We will look at questioning techniques in another post but our focus for today is to look briefly at silence and why it can be hard to find it and stay comfortable in it.

You might be familiar with the phrase ‘the power of the pause’ and it’s a great phrase to help you remember to stop talking. But in this post I want to use the term silence. ‘The power of the pause’ implies that we are poised to move on again; we are just waiting for a moment before we are handed back the conversational baton and can race ahead with our agenda. But silence is something we must settle into. It’s a more intimidating term perhaps, but being courageous and confident enough to stay with silence is the mark of a true leader.

So why do we find it so hard?

I’m not talking here about those moments when we don’t know what to say and we become tongue tied (we can look at that in another post). I’m talking about those moments when we could choose to be silent for the benefit of the conversation but we find ourselves talking anyway.

Why is this?

It is usually because:

  • We think it is our job to keep the conversation going

  • Silence in a conversation implies the conversation is failing

  • We fear the unknown

  • We don’t really want to have a conversation, we just want to give direction.

We are going to look at the first point in this blog.

Leading the conversation is one thing. Filling it with your words is another.

Behind the belief that we must fill the conversational ‘gaps’ with our words is the implication that it is our job to do the emotional and intellectual work in the conversation. This disempowers the other person in the conversation, whilst diminishing us to the role of servant- definitely a lose-lose! Whether you are talking to a peer, a direct report, or your boss, it is important that you give space for both of you to take a breath and gather your thoughts.

If we have been brought up with the idea that it is our job to keep the chatter going or to do the thinking in a conversation, then letting go of that responsibility can feel daunting. People often tell me that they feel guilty or anxious if they stop doing the work of keeping the conversation going. But a conversation takes place between two people (at least) and the really exciting and fruitful parts of a conversation occur when you and the other people in it discover meaning and make connections together.

Leadership does imply responsibility. But being responsible for a good outcome doesn’t mean doing all the work towards that outcome, whether you are responsible for producing a report or for having a conversation. So next time you are having a conversation and you find yourself thinking ‘Why aren’t they saying anything?’ or ‘Why don’t they ever come up with any ideas of their own?’ it might simply be that you haven’t given them enough airspace.

Rather than thinking that silence in a conversation is a sign that the conversation has failed or that you are not being an effective leader, think of silence as a little patch of earth in which the seedlings of a new thought might spring up, if you just wait long enough!

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