‘If you stay silent long enough they have to crack at some point!’
I’m always thoughtful when I hear this phrase, and others like it, such as keeping quiet until the other person squirms or gives in. This doesn’t come from someone who finds it difficult to stop talking. In fact this seems to be a point of view that embraces silence and sees it for the powerful tool that it is.
So why do I encourage deeper thought about this phrase?
There is an implied belief here which is important to surface. Underneath what is usually presented as a humourous comment is the view that silence is a weapon that you use to beat the other person with. It reveals a view that communication is a no-contact sport that you must win, and that if you don’t the other will win it instead.
So why do we think this way about conversations, why does it matter and what can we do instead?
Although it sounds like the kind of thing a super-confident person might say, I think it comes from fear. If we think a conversation is to be won or lost, we have to do what we can to save ourselves from the shame and loss of power that comes from losing. No doubt as children we have all experienced the terrible powerlessness of being bested or dominated in a conversation. Better to protect oneself from that forever by winning whenever you can. Michael Rosen puts it so well in this poem:
And why does it matter? After all if someone IS trying to dominate us or best us in conversation don’t we need to fight back?
If we are being bullied then of course we need to take action of some kind and silence might be a way of regaining a feeling of strength and calm. I imagine in an interrogation using silence to make the other person ‘crack’ could be spot on.
But in a work or personal conversation our highest aim is not to win or lose, but to build a trusting relationship.
So how do we shift that win/lose mindset?
Acknowledge your own feelings about winning and losing and how they might be affecting your approach
Evoke your empathy for the other person by looking at them and noticing how they are feeling in the exact moments when you are holding the silence
Go into the conversation expecting to discover something new
The conversations we have with others rarely stand alone- we often have another conversation with the same person, maybe that very day. Even if we know we won't meet the other again, we take every conversation we have had with us when we leave, building our sense of self and creating our own emotional environment with every interaction. Each conversation we have is more like a bead on a necklace, building something with ourselves and the other each time, than a competition in a tournament that must be won or lost.