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The Power of Silence in Leadership: What’s Your Relationship With It?

In the silence, the work can be done. It’s where the magic happens.

My journey and relationship with silence has been a long, difficult and enlightening one.  

I come from a loud Irish family where the conversation never stops. If you want to get a word in, you don’t wait for the pause because there is no pause. You find your split-second moment to jump into the river of conversation. It’s rich, energizing loud and chaotic. Silence isn’t comfortable in our familyIn fact, it’s almost non-existent. 

Living with my husband Richard for three decades is a totally different experience. It might be his Métis (Cree) heritage or his quiet nature, but he speaks when he has something to say. He observes, listens and pauses. He rarely fights to jump into the stream of conversation when my family is around, yet he’s sociable. Growing up, he and his family would comfortably sit in silence for hours,  

Getting Comfortable With Silence  

Within the two extremes, I’ve had to learn to get more comfortable with sitting in silence. It took me years to not to take it personally when Richard was silent. I would wonder if he was upset and if I was the cause of that. I also slowly discovered there are times to just keep quiet and appreciate the gaps in conversations, rather than fill them for the sake of the soundI’m not going to lie, it’s been hard. I’m a sociable extrovert with a lot to say.  

When Silence IAnd Isn’t Golden  

In my professional life, silence has shown up in different ways, both negative and positiveI once got in trouble for not staying silent on an issue and quickly learned some cultures would prefer to ignore issues than tackle them. If you want to keep somebody silent, you simply shut them down.  

I attended my fair share of meetings where everyone competed for airspace (including me)We talked over each otherand no one listened or reflectedNot much got accomplished either. This was a culture where the concept of silence was foreign. In fact, it was viewed as uncertain, weak or apathetic.   

As a business owner, I learned to ask questions angive space to silence. I also learned you stop selling when the deal is won.  In my role as a leader, I would like to think I used silence as a tool listen and reflect before speaking.  And, aa speaker, I learned the power of long pauses to make a point or drive a message home     

Silence AA Whole New Level  

And just when I thought I was getting a handle on this silence thing, life teaches you moreWhere the power of silence really landed for me was when I did my coach training.  

One of the exercises was to sit with another person in silence for a whole minute. You were encouraged to comfortably make eye contact but not stare.  Let me tell you, a minute can be a very looong time. For me it felt awkward and uncomfortable. Discomfort like that can make me giggle! I was resistant and the thoughts racing through my head went like this:  

“This is dumb. 

“I don’t like this, when will this be over?” 

“What if I laugh and the person thinks I’m laughing at them?”  

“It has to be a minute by now. 

About 30 seconds in it started to get easier. The resistance lessens and the thinking shifts from your discomfort to the other person.  You become more observant and curious. Who are they? What are they thinking? How are they feeling about this exercise? They have a kind face. They seem peaceful in this.  

And then time is called, and the lessons follow.  

As a coach, it’s never about you or your discomfort.  You are showing up in service of another person. You are there to be that confidential thinking partner for your coachee, listening on many levels and helping them move forward.  Asking a question and then holding the space to sit in silence allows the other person to think deeply, explore options, find answers, feel emotions, and come to their own insights.  

Silence IWhere The Magic Happens 

In the silence, the work can be done. It’s where the magic happens. Connections are made. Insights arise. Realizations emerge. Learning is sparked. Truths are recognized. Emotions surface.   

This opened a whole new level of learning about the importance of silence. To coach, and indeed to lead well, we must be patient and completely comfortable with silence if we are to help others growlearn and move forward If silence is what they need in that moment, then it’s our job to hold, honour and value the silence. 

Silence is a powerful tool when used positively It is thoughtful, respectful and provides the space for you and others to learn and understand. And, as I’ve come to learn, it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised every day.  

How Comfortable Are You With Silence? 

  1. What, if anything, is uncomfortable about it for you? 
  2.  What would happen if you sat with someone in silence for a minute?  
  3. What would it do for you and the people you serve if you intentionally held space and sat in silence more often  

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