Take Advantage of the Sounds of Silence
by Dianna Booher

There's more to hearing than meets the ear.

In this age of noise, more noise, and still more noise, perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood "sound" is the sound of silence. Amid the constant barrage of telephone calls, presentations, negotiations, and daily chitchat, every once in a while there is a break in the frenzy.

The way you respond to these moments of solitude can mean the difference between increased profits or decreased clientele ... deep understanding or total chaos ... a job well done or a job to be redone. To the effective communicator, silence is an opportunity to gain keener insight into your conversations and clearer understanding about the people with whom you're conversing.  After all, there's a reason no one is talking, and if you find it, you'll know how to respond.

Silence doesn't mean communication is dead; it may have simply lost its direction.  You can regain control of things by asking leading questions - those that penetrate the confusion and guide the conversation to a desired end.

Lead them to be more specific. 

One of the most common reasons for silence is a lack of clarity in the words and phrases used. Generalities, cliches, and unclear terms can disrupt the flow and content of your conversation.  Mark Twain said it well, "The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug."

Leading questions can help you nail down details and define terms. 

"Does 'as soon as possible' mean you'll finish the report by the end of the week, by the end of the day, or by noon?" 

"You said our representative was discourteous.  Did he yell?  Act disinterested?  Ignore your comments?" 

All of us have our own peculiar communication styles and mannerisms.  Learn to recognize yours and those of others you converse with. Lead them to the main point.  Conversations can digress into detours, and detours can take you far off the beaten path.  Leading questions can steer you back on track.
"But your primary concern is that everyone gets their input to you before next week's meeting?" 

"Of all the proposals you've mentioned, which one do you think is the most feasible within our estimated budget?"

Know where you're going in a conversation and you'll know when you get there.  Keep a careful ear out for those things that distract rather than direct.

Lead them to clarify conflicting facts or statements.

Like rush-hour traffic, conversations can result in traffic jams and sometimes accidents.  While you and your partner may be travelling down the same communication highway, you may be in different lanes or heading in different directions.  Leading questions can direct you through the congestion.

"Your colleague said you'd arrive at noon.  I understood you to say 2 o'clock.  When will you be there?" 

"We seem to be leaning toward the Turney proposal.  I thought we already ruled them out.  Did we get new data that makes them a more attractive option?"

Effective lawyers, detectives, and scientists poke and probe until they understand the facts completely.  So should you. 

Lead them to further feedback. 

The purpose of conversation is to exchange ideas and information in a give-and-take manner.  Just as a tennis match is monotonous if only one contestant takes part, so it is with conversations.

Some people don't give any feedback; others give it, only insufficiently.  Be alert and use leading questions to elicit the answers you're seeking. 

"What other comments do you have regarding our staffing shortage?" 

"In your opinion, which of the four issues should we concentrate on first?"

Get the feedback first and avoid the misunderstanding later. 

Lead them to agreement. 

At times, nothing more is said because nothing more needs to be said.  It's time to act - and ask.  "

You probably want to hire another part-timer then, right?" 

"I'm assuming you can give me a 20% discount if I give you an answer today?" 

"Since you're so displeased with the current facility, don't you want to consider another site?"

There is a tendency to be gruff or pushy here.  Don't be.  You simply want clear, specific, and timely action. 

Silence is simply another form of communication, but it can speak louder than the most adamant protests.  If your goal is to maximize these quiet opportunities and have clear, concise, and effective conversations, leading questions can get you there.  What's the next silence you can turn into action?


Author/speaker Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications training firm. Her programs include communication (writing, oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender, listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity. She has published 40 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books, February 2001), Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill), and The Esther Effect (Nelson-Word). Several have been major Book Club selections.
Call 817.868.1200; and visit www.booher.com.

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