While I have known that silence can be a powerful tool in my mediation tool box, I never really thought about until I read a recent article posted on the BBC news website called “The subtle power of uncomfortable silences ” by Lennox Morrison (July 18,2017). (“Article”)
The article examines what we all know innately; that Americans tend to be quite uncomfortable with long gaps of silence during a discussion. In fact, one study (“Study”) has shown that the typical silence gap in a conversation among Americans is much less than 4.6 seconds. (Id. at 8.)
Why are we so uncomfortable with silence? The author explains that it probably has much to do with the United States being a “low context” society:
In the US, it may stem from the history of colonial America as a crossroads of many different peoples, says Carbaugh. “When you have a heterogeneous complex of difference, it’s hard to establish common understanding unless you talk and there’s understandably a kind of anxiety unless people are verbally engaged to establish a common life,” he says. This applies also to some extent to London, he adds.
In contrast, he says, “When there’s more homogeneity perhaps it’s easier for some kinds of silence to appear. For example, among your closest friends and family it’s easier to sit in silence than with people you’re less well acquainted with.” (Article, supra.)
By contrast, Japan is a “high context culture” in which little actual verbal communication is needed due to the high homogeneity of the Japanese. Much can be conveyed by implicit non-verbal communication. (Study, supra.)
The inability of Americans to cope with gaps of silence makes it a powerful tool. As the article explains, the silence that occurs after one has finished speaking often causes the listener to feel uncomfortable. Rather than using the silence to reflect on what was said and to focus inward, the listener will feel quite awkward and an overpowering need to fill in the gap. In doing so, the listener will often make concessions or offer a compromise or make statements detrimental to her position. Thus, the speaker “wins” by remaining silent. Or, as Katie Donovan quoted in the BBC article notes, “He who speaks first, loses.” (Id.)
Learning to remain silent after another has spoken is difficult, taking quite a bit of self-control. But, it is a very valuable negotiation tactic. I have often used it during a separate session and have found that the silence causes the speaker to state what the dispute is REALLY about, what is REALLY upsetting her, and at times what it will REALLY take to resolve it. The silence causes the speaker to reveal her innermost thoughts; what is really bugging her! The silence on my part helps me to get to the heart of the matter; to get “below the line” so to speak and thus provides me with the needed knowledge to help the parties resolve the matter.
So…. One can learn quite a lot by simply remaining silent and saying nothing.
…. Just something to think about.
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