Shaking IT Up: Don’t Fear Silence, and Buy Some Duct Tape
February 20, 2006 Kevin Vandever
I was driving my 13-year old daughter to school the other day and noticed a phenomenon that hadn’t happened in a long time, if ever: Complete silence. I wasn’t talking, she wasn’t talking, and the radio wasn’t listing the side-effects of the latest drug to hit the market. What made this more improbable was the fact that neither of us were listening in private to an iPod nor was this a five minute drive to school. My daughter attends a performing arts school and on good days it takes about 40 minutes to wind through southern California traffic to get there. Nothing but complete silence filled the air . . . and it was nice.
It’s funny, though, how uncomfortable silence can feel. At first, I thought there was something wrong with my daughter. Was she upset with me? Worried about something? Tired? Sick? Or just 13? Normally our commutes to her school are filled with discussions about her friends, her classes, music, or my lectures. When neither of us is in the mood to talk, my daughter will attempt to catch some shut-eye, work on wearing out the preset buttons on the radio, or navigate through her favorite songs on her iPod.
However, on this particular day for some odd reason, none of this was taking place. I had turned off the radio to receive a phone call. I was tempted to turn it back on, but I decided to leave it off to see what would transpire. I also decided not to bring anything up with my daughter and instead let her be. During that time, she made no movement toward the radio, kept her eyes open, and did not say a word. It turns out that she enjoyed the silence and felt it gave her more mental strength to handle the school day ahead.
As I drove to my office after dropping my daughter off at school, my thoughts shifted to work. I had turned my radio back on as I figured the shock of walking into the office after 40 plus minutes of silence would be too much to take. However, before I started grooving to the jams on the radio, I discovered that I enjoyed and could use more silence, especially at work. There is just too much talking going on. Too many people think that their value is measured by the amount of words they speak. Some folks don’t realize that more good work could get done if there was simply more silence. Others don’t care and talk to hear themselves talk This happens at all levels of an organization and for many different reasons, but it all amounts to the same thing: Noise pollution.
Because of this, I have decided to root out silence abusers and noise polluters in an attempt make the workplace, and eventually the world, a quieter place. As a start, I’ve listed some of the biggest silence abusers in the workplace. Be on the lookout for these destroyers of silence in your workplace.
Some of the most egregious uses of completely unnecessary words can be found at the highest levels of management right in your own company. This usually happens when two or more executives are on opposite sides of an argument, but may just happen because of extreme insecurity or egotism. However, the result is the same and that is that one executive will attempt to out-impress another executive in front of the rest of the executives by trying to get the coveted Last Word. And not only will they each attempt to get the Last Word, but they will do so by reiterating their whole position on a topic, which will then spawn echoes of discussions that came up the first time said executive expounded on his stance. Soon, it’s déjà vu and eventually déjà vu all over again as the vicious Last Word cycle has no end except for a natural disaster of some sort–or maybe lunch. (You can distract executives with doughnuts and fresh coffee sometimes, too.)
A slight variation of the Executive Last Word Olympics cited above is when a non-executive gets the opportunity to talk to an executive and feels the need to make an impression. The odds of this happening increases as the number of folks who will have to endure this competition also increases. Sometimes this can be good for one’s career. It might be OK for a minion of the company to ask an executive a question in an open forum, especially if the executive asks for such questions. It might provide some exposure for that minion that otherwise would not have been there. However, when that minion asks a question just to ask a question, and that question has no business being asked in the first place, it is a violent act against silence. Listen for questions surrounding currency conversion rates in countries that your company does no business in or way-too obvious suggestions about new products that have not only are certain to have been discussed, but were also brought up in last month’s meeting by a different minion. Find these people immediately and issue them duct tape–you can even help them apply it–when they attend a meeting that includes an executive. Stop silence abuse in its tracks.
Another example of abuse against silence is when a blow-hard, thinks-he-knows-it-all, self-serving, son of a–OK, you get the idea–uses 10,000 words to answer a question when 5 words would do. You know these anti-silence pushers . They usually start what should be a yes/no answer with phrases like, “Just so you understand. . . ” or “to give you a little history on what’s going on. . . ” It’s not that what they have to say is useless. Many times it can be valuable information, but just as many times it can be a big waste of time and nothing more than the result of an insecure employee justifying his own existence.
The problem with these types of folks, other than their incredible abuse of silence, is that you probably avoid inviting them to meetings, engaging them in conversations, or generally making eye contact with them for fear of subtracting unnecessary years to your life because of the need to work too hard to extract the few, valuable nuggets of information from the onslaught of words, clichés, sports analogies, and all-out boasting that is coming your way faster than a programmer who just heard that there are left over doughnuts in the conference room. So in addition to enduring the silence abuse, you waste time, too. But that’s a topic for another article.
Another person who treats silence with the utmost disgrace is one who provides inappropriate detail for his or her audience. This person is not as overtly abusive as his insecure counterpart. Most of the time he doesn’t even realize what he is doing. The problem here is that he usually over-explains himself with the goal of providing maximum information to his listener, but the result usually ends up with the listener losing the will to live. And instead of listening, he or she ends up contemplating jumping from a window, however high up it is, just to escape the situation.
The good news here is that you can sometimes cure this individual from his anti-silence state and you might even turn that person around to the point of his living a life of silence and imploring others to do the same. One quick fix to his unending rambling is to come up with signals to warn him when he’s gone too far. This, of course, only works when you are with this person, but after enough warnings with you, his internal warning system might kick in and fix the problem. Not only will this increase silence in your organization, but it will decrease window-replacement costs, workman comp claims, and wrongful death suits.
One last terminator of silence is kind of a combination of the previous two examples. This person sometimes explains in too much detail and loses his listener and he sometimes pontificates beyond human endurance, but it is usually in the form of over-eagerness or over-selling and not so much to provide information or hear himself talk.
This is the person who–and my oldest daughter falls into this category–even after you say “yes” to a particular question or request, still feels the need to provide you reasons why you should say “yes.” You have seen this, right? (Just say yes, and move on.)
Someone asks you if they can move the projector out of the large conference room so that they can give a presentation in the small conference room. They start to explain that small conference room doesn’t have a projector and that it is perfect size for the number of people who are going to meet. Somewhere in the middle of their rambling, you say, “Yes, that’s fine; just make sure you let the rest of the team know.” You start to walk away from the conversation and you hear, “. . . I’ll make sure to let the rest of the group knows and I’ll keep the meeting to less than one hour. If you let me do this, I’ll also. . .”
Weren’t you listening? I said “Yes” 45 minutes ago.
It could be the case that these people have worked up such a strong case as to why the listener should say “yes” that they have to get it off their chest. In fact, they might feel offended if you don’t listen to the whole case for the request. It could be that these folks are so eager for you to hear their request that they ramble on out of pure joy and excitement, but it’s probably just the case that their mamas and papas didn’t bring them up properly, so they just don’t know when to shut up.
I have just provided you with some examples of blatant silence abusers. These are certainly the extremes, but there are also many subtle, subconscious abusers of silence, including me from time to time. For many folks, silence is an uncomfortable setting when there is more than one person in a room. People feel forced to start a conversation when and where one does not need to be started and they will feel the need to continue a discussion past the point of effectiveness, just to avoid silence.
Technically, it is called sedatephobia, the fear of silence, and it is not really so much of a fear as an epidemic. (If you want to see a list of phobias that will shock you in its length, go to www.blifaloo.com/info/phobias.php.) We should all try to say less. Don’t necessarily shut up–although some of us should do that–just say less and, instead, try listening more.
Start simple. Try answering a yes or no question with a “yes” or a “no.” When you get asked by someone to give a status report or explain a situation, understand your audience and explain accordingly. If someone jumps out of a window while you are talking, chances are that you’ve gone on too long. When you see people nodding off, rolling their eyes, or otherwise showing signs of boredom, anger, or confusion. . . stop talking! You’ll be amazed at the attention you’ll get, and it will be more effective than any words you can say.