The Power of Silence

Shawn paced around his living room- he wouldn’t sit down.

I figured I should just wait it out and let him process.

“I’m a coward.” He said it with a conviction that concerned me.

I decided to say nothing. I wanted him to get it out, to let it go. This was not a time to launch one of my motivational tales. I reminded myself to shut up- my role was to listen and absorb.  This meeting was unusual in that it was more therapy than reinvention strategizing.

Shawn ( not his real name) is a 40-something accountant who worked for a large firm based in the UK. Two weeks ago, they laid him off.

He had been unhappy in his position, even though he says he was good at it. He worked 50-60 hours a week, doggedly making sense of the numbers, relentlessly achieving the predictable outcomes  that accountant-types love to arrive at. The feedback from HQ was generally positive. He was making the numbers work.

Shawn had considered reinvention for some time, but wasn’t sure how to proceed with his plan. Work deadlines always took precedence. He would shelve his strategy, promising to revisit it when things “slowed down”.

That slowdown was the reason Shawn got sacked.

The layoff hit him like a 2×4. He didn’t see it coming and felt completely unprepared to react.

He paced around the living room, but not in a maniacal way; he had a look on his face that projected quiet desperation. He was speaking in measured tones, predicting an apocalyptic collapse of his finances, a deteriorating relationship with his wife, and the loss of all these things he had worked so hard to

“When you’re over 40 no one will talk to you. They all think you’re old…”

Shawn and his wife had constructed a minimum – security prison of material goods; he had the car, the house, with the wine cellar- and these things came with monthly payments attached to them. He liked the lifestyle he and his wife enjoyed, admitting that they were partly distractions from the long work weeks, performing a job he was certainly competent at performing, but feeling empty and unfulfilled.

” I don’t know what I’m going to do.”  Shawn’s tone was credible. He really didn’t know, and it terrified him.

I decided to summon the power of silence.

I tell both my students at AAU and my clients who are polishing their profiles for the job hunt that silence is an extremely effective way to extract information from people. For example, politicians and professional talking heads speak in soundbites. They’ve been interviewed a million times, and they know what to say and how to say it. When they are addressing a particularly passionate subject, or responding to a media report they feel is unjust, they are almost always in control. They have rehearsed their response. They know exactly how they want to react. But inside their heads, they are fired up. They are defensive, though their words don’t impart this defensiveness.

This is where silence can be so valuable.

The talking head elegantly delivers the canned response and stops, soundbite delivered.

Sometimes it’s a good idea for the interviewer or journalist to simply look the subject in the eye, and say absolutely nothing.

The dead air is uncomfortable, even though it’s only a handful of seconds. Seeking to fill the air with something, the talking head says something else.

This response is less rehearsed. And sometimes, there is more truth in the second response.

I’m watching Shawn pace and talk to himself. I decided to shut up and just listen, letting him fill the dead air with thoughts. I’m not sure if he was looking for me to say something; he wasn’t asking me direct questions.  So I stayed silent. The truth was about to show itself.

Suddenly he stopped.

” What the hell am I doing? I’m standing here predicting doom with no evidence to support it. I’m getting myself all wound up, like I’m looking into some damn crystal ball. I need to calm down, take stock of what’s happening, and have a good long talk with my wife. I need to settle down.”

Now was my moment to talk.

“That sounds great, man. You just made a huge first step. You just figured it out.

Nice work.”

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