I am going to make a bold statement: we are dramatically underutilizing one of the most valuable tools for communicating with others: silence. The occasional use of quiet in a conversation allows for thought and reflection and can increase the positive effects of talk. Yet silence is avoided, even feared, in dialogue. Rather than allow for quiet thought, conversations race from topic to topic as if the shear quantity of words equates to quality of communication.
There are plenty of reasons why we feel that silence is not golden, but the one that I like to focus on is the somewhat overused idea that good communication must involve “active listening.” Active listening involves processing all available communication data, not just words but intonation, body language, facial expression and so on. The total message is conveyed in all of these elements and good listeners heed all of this information.
Let me propose that we now add INactive listening to our communication skill set. When we listen INactively, we let silence enter the conversation. Silence gives people a chance to pause and reflect on the conversation content. Comfortable silence lets us process what we are taking in. We can weigh its merits, examine its flaws and decide on how to use the intelligence in the message. Conversation can then move beyond the give and take of messages and can transform itself into learning and action.
However, not all silence is golden. INactive listening pared with active listening gives us the full message. Silence accompanied by frowns or pulling away may indicate anger and withdrawal. The listener is choosing silence as a way to pull out and shut down. Silence accompanied by gazing at a distance or even with a faint smile and relaxed facial expression shows us the listener’s positive processing, acceptance and support.
Endless talk without reflection diminishes our ability to actually process what we hear. Without reflection, the constant chatter piles up in our heads in a tangled jumble, difficult to remember and apply. When we use both Active and INactive listening skills we not only gather all available communication messages, we allow ourselves time to absorb, catalog and preserve those messages for future use. We have truly heard the speaker and may have actually learned something in the process.