I have written a lot about listening skills. And by a lot, I mean this and this and this; as well as touching on it in several other articles. It’s a topic I geek-out on. Today I’m going to hone in on one very specific component of listening. That is, the importance of SILENCE.
You may be thinking – What does silence have to do with listening? Silence is what happens when no one can think of anything to say! Sometimes that’s true. We’ve all experienced that awkward pause in a conversation. But that’s not where I’m going with this.
For the sake of this topic, I’m going to be referring to deep listening. Deep listening is when you’re in a conversation that requires focused attention, comprehension and understanding.
Examples of times when you should practice deep listening:
- When someone is upset. (Especially if you have upset them.)
- When the relationship depends on your understanding.
- When you need to comprehend information.
- Customer service!
What we know about human nature is that people want to be heard and understood. Even if you cannot do anything to improve the actual situation for the person, deeply listening to them can help significantly.
Think of a time when you have complained to a business manager about service or product quality you have received. If the manager really listened to understand, you probably felt better about the situation. Conversely, if you were made to feel like they just wanted to move you along, you likely were more frustrated than before you complained.
That’s the power of deep, empathetic listening. It’s listening to understand and honor the speaker’s thoughts, feelings and needs.
The problem is that most of us listen to respond, rather than listening to understand. When we are caught up in our own point of view we are not listening deeply. What often happens is that we start out listening, and truly intending to give our full attention. Then, at some point the speaker says something that shifts our brain to our own thoughts, feelings and opinions. At that point we stop listening and we begin waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can take over as the speaker.
To be clear – sometimes this is fine. When we’re out socializing or chit chatting with friends this is perfectly okay. During brainstorming sessions, we absolutely want to have ideas build off one another. That’s not what I’m referring to in this article. This is focusing on those times when deep listening is crucial to the outcome of the conversation.
That brings me back to the power of silence. We as humans are uncomfortable with silence, therefore we work hard to fill it. That’s what makes it so powerful!
During a deep listening conversation, there should absolutely be silence. In any conversation, there comes a time when the speaker stops talking. At that point, when you are deeply listening and giving your full attention, you likely need a moment to take in everything they have just shared. The silence is an indicator that you have listened all the way to the end of what they had to say.
The more emotional or intense the speaker’s content, the more important it is to allow silence. Give space for everything they have just stated to settle. If you are super-uncomfortable with the silence, you can say something to the effect of: “You really shared a lot there, give me a moment to process all you have said.” This demonstrates to the speaker that you were committed to really hearing what they had to say, rather than thinking about your response.
Another great thing about silence is that it leads the speaker to reveal more. Just as we dislike silence as listeners, the speaker is equally uncomfortable with it. When we listen all the way to the end, then leave silent space as we process, the speaker becomes anxious and often starts talking more. At that point they tend to start sharing more, including things they hadn’t necessarily intended to share with you.
Effective listening produces better understanding, which eases tension and helps the speaker to relax. As a result, your deep listening helps the speaker to think more clearly. When given the space to really be heard and understood, it leads to the speaker having revelations or changes about their thoughts on the topic. The silence allows space for those things to come out.
The last benefit of allowing for silence is that it gives us, as listeners, the opportunity to formulate our response. By listening all the way to the end and being comfortable with the silence, we then have the opportunity to clearly think about the best next step in the conversation.
- Do you need to ask a question to improve your understanding?
- Does this person need you to validate their feelings with a reflection?
- Should you offer comfort?
- Or do you need to formulate a response to what has been stated?
Use the silence to practice your emotional intelligence.
Deep listening is a powerful tool for managing conflict, improving relationships, and increasing our knowledge and understanding. It results in easier collaborations and more fulfilling relationships both in our work life and our personal life. Becoming comfortable, or even confident, in the silence will make you an even better listener!
If you would like help in developing your listening skills or creating a listening culture, I would love to help! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect them for a free 30-minute discovery call.
Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits, small businesses and leaders.