When is silence not golden, or the quiet killer?

By Natalie Irons,
Associate Director of Instructional Coaching, UCLA Center X

I recently reached out to my doctor about some repeated symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion. I teared up as we spoke, realizing that I was finally doing something, speaking out about things my body was telling me for months now. Recalling an educator during a zoom webinar early in the pandemic, “Listen to your body, it’s smarter than you,” I was now doing just that, listening and taking action after having accumulated too much silence towards my system, and now unable to manage on my own.

As a coach and professional developer, I have learned in my training how important it is to offer a pause, to think, to check in on my awareness of my own responses to someone else’s thinking, to respond, not react. This skill to provide “wait time” can create a safe space to support people in achieving their own goals. In fact, a Psychology Today article notes that “silence has been found to stimulate brain growth…” A 2013 study found that “a minimum of two hours of silence could result in the creation of new brain cells in the area of our brains linked to learning and recall.” And yet, sometimes our workplaces are not developing listening and learning cultures but creating cultures of unproductive, and even toxic, silence.

So, when is silence not “golden”? Consider these scenarios and possible actions to take to distinguish the silence that kills versus the silence that builds community.

  1. Consciousness is UnderdevelopedThink about those times when you’ve heard someone in a meeting ask you or a colleague, “Why would you ask that question?” their head tilted and eyes rolled, signaling that you have asked a really dumb question, and have done so in front of your colleagues. Yikes! A scenario like this has just doomed silence to be “a quiet killer.”What can you do? Be a witness. Participants can aid a situation like this by paraphrasing what was seen and heard. Stating aloud for the group something like, “It looks like the question offered was misunderstood” can bring awareness publicly that some might be experiencing things differently.
  2. Vulnerability is Disregarded
    Imagine saying in front of your peers and maybe even supervisor, “I made an error” or “I don’t understand the importance doing of this.” You then hear something like “try to not do it again” or “that’s just part of the system.” When vulnerability is not rewarded but has been publicly disregarded either by a verbal or non-verbal response, the outcome is silence and can create a culture of fear of speaking up.What can you do as the receiver of the vulnerable share? Show appreciation and acknowledgment. Say, “Thank you. I appreciate you sharing. I will support you.” Showing this kind of compassion is essential in creating safe spaces.
  3. Sense of Belonging is Surface Only
    It’s the beginning of a team meeting and the facilitator starts with an “icebreaker.” People smirk, some giggle, and some just look down shuffling through papers. But the activity starts with a prompt for colleagues to share a family tradition. The energy in the room continues with the same dichotomy – some vocal, even boisterous, some saying very little, even silent. This well-intentioned attempt to connect has created a greater divide. The sense of belonging as a group has remained at the surface. It is not necessarily the activity, but the sense of trust people have with one another and with the process.What can you do? Start with naming the “why” of the activity, not with calling the opening an “icebreaker.” Group members may sense that there is “frozen tundra” to thaw using that label which can keep the group connecting only on the surface. Explaining the “why” helps adult learners understand their relationship to the process and the people.

The next time you are in a space where there is silence, stop and listen to the environment. Who is speaking? Who is not? What might be the source of the silence? If it is possible that the quiet is from fear, try a paraphrase or appreciation for the vulnerability in the space. State intentions with clarity and empathy. You might be surprised by how much more you will actually hear. The coaching skills you have developed to pause and paraphrase may be your best guide. How might you determine, and then decide to stay silent or speak out?