Layout artists know the power of white space. What you leave blank emphasizes what you don’t.
Many of us, in conversation, have never learned this lesson. Faced with white space — silence — we immediately fill it in, whether it’s with additional information, a question, an anecdote, or a change of subject. It’s as if silence is a vacuum and we are Mother Nature, instinctively abhorring it.
Don’t abhor silence. It’s a versatile conversational tool. Effective executives know how to use it. Whether you need information, a counteroffer, or a commitment, silence is your friend. So, for that matter, is ignorance.
For example, imagine you’ve just asked a key executive in your company for her support in some business effort you’re championing, and you don’t get any response. Don’t give in to your instinct to fill the uncomfortable silence. The executive is thinking.
Until you know what she’s thinking about, everything you say puts your program at risk. If you offer a reinforcing point she might perceive you to be either pushy or uncertain about the program’s value. Those are two reasons to give an equivocal answer — and remember, in business, maybe means no.
If, on the other hand, you offer her a graceful way out she’s likely to take it. Why would you want to lead her in that direction?
Keep quiet. She’ll give you an answer before the silence becomes too uncomfortable. The ball is in her conversational court, and she knows it.
Imagine the worst happens and she turns you down. Now what? Don’t say a word, that’s what. The only logical question for you to ask is, “May I ask why you’re uncomfortable with the idea?” When you ask this, she’ll answer you, cementing her decision in her own mind and ending the conversation.
If, on the other hand, you remain silent, who knows what she might say next? She might offer an alternative. She might suggest you talk to a colleague who’s been thinking along the same lines you have. She might even offer you the chance to persuade her to change her mind. These are all opportunities you’ll lose if you speak too soon. (If, after a few moments, she indicates it’s your turn to speak, be as noncommittal as you can: “I was hoping you’d elaborate.”)
The use of silence isn’t restricted to negotiations, either. When you’re gathering information, silence on the part of the person you’re asking is an invitation for you to offer an answer. Don’t, even if you know it.
Never underestimate the power of ignorance. If you let your respondent off the hook by providing information too early, you might deprive yourself of valuable results.
Not long ago I was interviewing a business manager as part of a consulting engagement. “What’s the process you go through when you need something from the IT organization?” I asked. I got a puzzled frown in response. I waited a bit, and eventually the business manager said, “You know, I’m not sure.” I asked what he’d like the answer to be, which led to a productive conversation about the lack of an effective process for managing business situations requiring IT support.
Based on earlier interviews I knew perfectly well who he was supposed to call. If I’d filled in the silence with, “According to the IT organizational chart, Fred Schwartz is the analyst who supports your organization,” the manager would most likely have said, “Oh, of course — I work with Fred a lot.” And neither of us would have learned about a barrier that existed between IT and the business.
Years ago, someone or other promoted the idea that the creation of uncomfortable silences was an important way to establish personal power. Maybe it is, although I think it’s more likely to result in a staring contest that makes both participants look and feel foolish. If you’re the sort of person who needs to play that kind of game to gain personal power, and if those around you are dim enough to fall for it, go for it. Just don’t look for help here.
If you’re looking for power, read Machiavelli. But if all you need is to be more effective, remember that if you have a choice between eloquent speech and ignorant silence, choose the latter.
It’s hard to overestimate the power of a dumb look.