‘Words can inspire. Words can destroy. Choose your words well.’ (Peter Economy)
In English, we use an expression, ‘biting my lip’ to describe a moment when we’re yearning to say something, yet choose self-restraint. And there can be good reasons to hold back. Our words could prove hurtful or damaging…or decidedly career-limiting. Yet there are situations in which we should speak up. What if our safety filters auto-override our personal need for congruence; or the needs of a situation where our silence could be taken as tacit agreement or collusion?
What if our fears of the consequences of speaking out, for instance against some grievous injustice, allow the violation to go unchecked? What if we’re simply too shy or polite to speak out for risk of transgressing our own or others’ cultural expectations? Anti-Nazi Martin Niemöller’s words can still haunt us: ‘First they came for X, and I did not speak out because I was not an X’. It’s a silence that can leave our consciences seared and others devoid of support.
Yet we also know the amazing, positive, transformative power of words to spark the imagination, ignite a passion, set us brightly ablaze. Think of first-class orators, of Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King: of words that inspired such great conviction, commitment and courage. Words can reframe, reconstrue, change everything we think and believe is possible. Words can touch us deeply emotionally; instil confidence, engender hope, enable us to receive and convey love.
As a follower of Jesus, I love the mystery of words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, the early word, the first word, the I am who I am word, the with-God word, the was-God word. The without-whom-nothing word, an unheard-of word behind words. World-making word. Speaking the language behind language.’ Words used playfully, creatively, evocatively, provocatively can allow us to grasp and express reality, idea, concept, abstract and experience that lay beyond words.
At times, I have spoken words when I should have stayed silent and stayed silent when I should have spoken. It has felt like dancing on a knife edge; trying to weigh up pros and cons, rights and wrongs, implications and consequences, all in a split second. Sometimes, I have found myself lost for words, or I have used words clumsily or harshly without enough care for others. In seeking too hard to be more considered or diplomatic, my words have felt too weak, cautious or ineffective.
At other times, however, I have seen and felt the dazzling, dynamic influence that life-giving words can have on a person’s whole world, outlook and stance; a team’s relationships; an organisation’s effectiveness; a society’s vision and hope. I have seen how words can change…everything. I try to use words with courage, humility, creativity and love. What part do words play in your life, work and relationships? If we use words well, what becomes possible?
‘So much more was said in the unsaid.’ (Bridget Devoue)
Silence: a powerful rhetorical device, used by speakers and musicians to evoke resounding emotional impact. Silence leaves the audience…waiting…in...anticipation and ‘the sound of silence can be the most deafening sound of all’ (Toth). Silence is an important presencing tool in coaching and therapy too: an inviting silence that signals attentiveness; a space to feel deep and think hard; a willingness to listen and to hear. Silence interrupts and creates a...pause. It’s the silent space between notes that makes music possible.
These kinds of silence are so very different to the deadly silence of…intimidation. ‘The predator wants your silence. It feeds their power, entitlement, and they want it to feed your shame’ (Davis). This is the act, the feeling of being, becoming, done to, suppressed; collusion and fear. I’ve felt that silence at times; as if an invisible hand is grasping at my throat; making it hard for me to squeeze the words out, to breathe. It’s the silence of the silenced, the voice-less; where all that's left is a dark, lifeless, empty...void.
So, we do well to tread with wisdom and insight here. 'There's a time to be silent and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). ‘Not every truth is the better for showing its face undisguised; and often silence is the wisest thing for a person to heed' (Pindar). Some things are best said, others better left unsaid. We may find ourselves awestruck, speech-less, lost for words. We may simply feel no need to speak. The same silence that one person finds awkward, difficult or lonely can feel calming, refreshing or revitalising for another.
What part does silence play in your leadership, OD, coaching or training? When is your best advice: ‘Don’t speak’?
‘The teacher works with the students; the students work on the language.’ (Caleb Gattegno)
The Silent Way. It sounds like a monastic tradition. As a student at International House Newcastle last week, I was invited by teachers, Sally Muse and Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa, to lead a teaching-English class in…silence. The experiment was to demonstrate and experience the power of silence in a learning process. It can sound counter-intuitive for leaders, managers and trainers who are used to directing, guiding and imparting knowledge. It involves evoking, eliciting and enabling discovery with minimal input and interference from the teacher. I led the class without speaking a word.
So now I’m thinking about leadership, OD, coaching, mentoring and training. The Silent Way calls for discernment, discipline and self-restraint, providing just-enough input where needed so that people are able to focus, grasp, struggle-with and find their own way forward. The image come to mind of a parent stepping back, letting go, coaxing with gestures and smiles as a child takes its first steps. It’s hard at first yet, in overcoming the barriers, in achieving the task, the child finds courage, confidence and new abilities. The parent offers challenge and support but it’s the child who walks.
There are useful parallels here in e.g. coactive leadership, process consultation, non-directive facilitation and coaching. It’s not always about holding absolute silence. It is about having a clear intention; paying attention to who is doing the talking and why; noticing what the impacts are on the relationship, the person’s growth and the outcomes. Very often, listening and minimal prompts are good and enough: e.g. ‘So?’, ‘And?’, ‘Then?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What else?’, ‘Next?’ You can almost see and hear the cogs whirring. Do you ever say too much when silence could achieve a better result?
If you’ve got nothing to say, say it.’ As teenagers at school, we could always tell the teacher was annoyed when he would blurt out these words in exasperation. It was usually when the class was noisy, people chatting away excitedly but paying no attention whatsoever to the teacher at the front. I have to confess that, at the time, its subtlety was lost on us.
We would look at each other across the room, puzzled faces, mouthing silently, ‘It?’ Over many years working as leader, coach and facilitator, however, I have noticed, discovered, the real value of staying silent. As someone with a clear introverted preference, being quiet comes easily to me. However, the silence I’m talking about here isn’t quietness per se but silence as presence – active, engaged, being-with.
Often, silence is associated with absence, avoidance, withdrawal from. You can imagine, for instance, the stony silence that follows an argument or the silence of a bored colleague gazing out of the window during a team meeting. I know extroverted trainers who dread working with introverted participant groups because they find the silence deafening, impenetrable, debilitating.
The silence I’m talking about, though, is a deliberate space, choosing contact with another person or a group (or God) rather than filling that space with our words. It’s a silence that invites the other, assures the other of our attention and believes that that connection, that quality of relationship itself, can be transformative. It’s about offering ourselves – and believing that is enough.
When I first started out in my career, I was keen to make a difference through my efforts and concerned about how others would perceive me. I felt I had to speak to convince others of my worthwhile-ness, to show that I had something useful to say. It was all about displaying and asserting my own knowledge and experience. Over time, however, I discovered that my speaking was sometimes, paradoxically, counter-productive.
As a leader, it could inhibit others from speaking their own words. As a coach and facilitator, it could be a distraction, an interference. I realised that awakening and building the best in others often involves silence, listening, genuine curiosity and care. It entails pausing before stepping in, allowing the silence to do its own work.
My silence allows me to not-know. It allows me space to listen, truly listen, to the sound behind a person’s voice; the silent, vibrant, resonating sound of deeply-held beliefs and values, unspoken questions, hopes and fears. My attention, my presence, supports the other person as a human being, nurturing what is within to emerge, to rise to the surface and, in doing so, it affirms something of my own humanity too.
Of course, silence itself is not the only quality that matters in our work. There are times where we do need to speak up, to share and show what we think, feel and believe. Nevertheless, silence can evoke the space, the environment, the conditions, the opportunity, for creative conversation, energetic dialogue and a dynamic way forward.
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