The Effective Use Of Silence

When I was a resident, I was given the opportunity to participate in a series of seminars designed to improve my teaching skills. In one discussion group the discussion leader asked us a question to which no one had an immediate answer. He waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, one of my colleagues offered an answer that happened to be incorrect but that sparked a lively discussion we all found quite valuable.

After the seminar, I had a chance to talk with the discussion leader and remarked how unfazed he’d seemed by the silence that had greeted his question, which had seemed to stretch on for what I’d figured to be almost five minutes. He replied the silence had only lasted 30 seconds.

“Wow,” I said. “Only 30 seconds? It seemed like a lot more.”

He nodded. “It always does. But if you as the teacher can become comfortable waiting, you can make very effective use of silence. Notice it got one of you to answer.”

His answer got me thinking.


People abhor silence the way nature abhors a vacuum and rush to fill it with the same alacrity. Silence feeds our imaginations and provokes all types of anxious conjurations. If we’re clever about it, however, we can leverage these negative reactions to create positive value.

  1. Silence can motivate students to attempt to answer questions. As I learned from my experience as a resident, if you can become comfortable enduring the harsh thud of silence once you’ve thrown out a question, training yourself to wait far beyond the point that feels comfortable, someone will crack before you do and try to answer your question. And at least one study has shown we’re more likely to remember the correct answer to a question if we’re told it after guessing incorrectly than if we’re told it after refusing to venture a guess at all.
  2. Silence can make you more effective at your job. That is, if you can force yourself to listen before giving into the impulse to speak. My wife, a commercial real estate broker, markets the effective use of silence as a “discovery session” she holds with all her clients, saying almost nothing about herself or her strategies for finding them office space until after she’s listened thoroughly to their business requirements and issues they find important. How else, she argues, can she be sure when she does propose space solutions that she’s meeting her clients’ needs? One would think every real estate broker would do this, but she finds herself continually astounded (and pleased) by how few of her competitors actually do. And skipping this step isn’t limited to the business world, either. When patients refuse recommended tests or therapies, doctors typically respond by launching into arguments designed to make their advice clearer. Rarely do I see a doctor pause first to ask why the patient is refusing. But when I silence myself and listen first, I often learn my preconceived notions about why I’m being refused are wrong. One patient with a clear need for a cardiac catheterization refused it not out of a fear of possible complications as I’d presumed but because he didn’t think he could lie flat for the required six hours afterward. Listening first enables me to either allay a patient’s unjustified fears or understand their legitimate objections. And if an objection is legitimate, how can I decide how to deal with it—attempt to counter it or make an alternative recommendation—if I don’t know what it is?

Silence is Power

With the caveat that power can always be abused, the effective use of silence can bestow many gifts, chief among them:

  1. The ability to listen effectively. Few do it well. Most of us engage in listening only as a way of waiting until it’s our turn to speak. If you can’t resist thinking about what you want to say when listening, focus instead specifically on being silent. You’ll be surprised how much your ability to concentrate will improve. And if you can stop focusing on what you want to say when listening (don’t worry; it won’t go anywhere you can’t find it) and instead concentrate entirely on what’s being said to you, then silence won’t just bring you a new skill; it will bring you new knowledge. Remember that listening is far more powerful than speaking. You learn nothing by saying something (which by definition you already know). Besides, how often are we really able to influence another’s behavior or beliefs by what we say?
  2. A clear view into the hearts of others. Silence gets you out of the way and creates a space others will fill in with themselves. A person’s personality becomes apparent in mere hours to days. Assessing a person’s character, on the other hand, takes months to years. But people remain themselves at every moment. An offhand comment made when you first meet someone may be, in retrospect, obviously representative of a large character defect (or virtue). If you employ silence to listen carefully to not only what people say but how they say it, you’ll find they’ll give themselves away to you constantly and enable you to understand their character far sooner than you would be able to otherwise. Having had years of practice interacting with and observing nuances in our fellow human beings’ expression and tone has made our intuition far more accurate than we often believe. It only requires your silence to give full play to its power.
  3. Attractiveness. People want more than anything to be heard and understood and will find anyone who provides them that feeling powerfully charismatic.
  4. Self-control. Think how much more in control you’d not only appear but actually be if your first response upon hearing or seeing something that sparks a strong reaction in you wasn’t to lash out emotionally but instead to become—silent. Silence is a terrific substitute for self-control, not only creating its appearance, but over time and with practice its substance as well.
  5. Wisdom. When facing a new challenge, making silence your first response gives you a chance to reflect before you speak, increasing the likelihood that what you say and do will be on target, intelligent, and useful. Further, silent reflection promotes the appropriate use of what we call in medicine a “tincture of time.” If you resist the urge to leap into action at the first moment a problem arises, the problem often fixes itself. In medicine, as in life, sometimes the wisest action is none at all.

Prior to that conversation during my residency, I’d only thought about silence as something to be enjoyed in solitude and avoided in the presence of others. Now I think about it as a tool I can use to make myself more effective at my job and more understanding of others, and thereby more compassionate, wiser, and happier. Just think how the world would be different if we all spent more time listening. At the very least, it would be a whole lot quieter.

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  • I guess the line, “You say it best when you say nothing at all” actually works.

    A lovely read, just like your other entries, thanks!

  • As always, I enjoyed reading this. Reminded me of an old saying I’ve heard for ages in medicine: “Don’t just DO something, STAND THERE!”

  • A wonderful skill to perfect for all the reasons you give; I hope that sometime before I shuffle off this planet, I’ll have mastered, or at least developed, it. It would make for so much more effective dealings with others. Thank you.

    Gene: You and me both. 🙂


  • Once again—great food for thought!!!

  • Excellent advice. That gap in between thoughts is where assimilation occurs. There is nothing more gratifying in conversion than knowing that we have been received.

    Too often conversations proceed at the speed of sound, for we have other obligations to meet. That chatter can be mind numbing.

  • Thank you. I have printed this one out to refer to (OFTEN I expect!). :o)

  • Brilliant! Applicable on so many different planes…

    As always a very enjoyable read. Thank You!

  • A good reminder to all of us to listen more than to talk. This brings to the nature of my job that I need to focus listening more before uttering anything. Thanks for the reminder.

  • The pauses in music make the musical score all the more powerful. The same with good comedic timing. It’s the silence from Jack Benny’s tightwad character that gets the biggest laugh in response to “your money or your life.”

    I find older folks and people from rural areas tolerate and welcome long silent pauses within conversation; it’s a refreshing change once one gets used to it. They feel no need to fill empty space with chatter.

  • 🙂

    Angelina: Now THAT was a great comment!


  • As an attorney who specializes in corporate fraud litigation, let me say amen, and then, ahem, a lot of this gets used in my line of work. Silence is a known technique in both negotiation and deposition, but in a situation where information is power, people who rush in to fill the silence and give away information are losing power. If you are trying to get information out of people, silence works.

    I guess it’s not always a positive thing to know about…

  • I agree with this 90%.

    But there are times one can set the tone by speaking up (in a positive way), a catalyst to create a mood. You have to engage in a conversation; it can’t just be one-sided. I think the ability to ask the right questions is as important as the power to be silent.

    Mark: Couldn’t agree more. I guess I could have titled the post instead, “The Selective Use Of Silence.”


  • Silence allows your non-verbals to speak loudly. And if you’re aware of what you’re projecting, the message is clear…”You matter.” There is no more powerful a “technique” in a counseling setting than when your whole body actively expresses that you’re listening.

    Interestingly, I posted a piece yesterday on silence as well, from a different angle.

    Dana: Just read your post. Beautifully written.


  • There is a saying in India that compares untimely spoken words to an arrow discharged from a bow which cannot be retrieved, where the shape of the human lips is akin to the bow and the tongue akin to the arrow.

  • Discovered this site, I don’t know how, but only a couple weeks ago. (Perhaps from a NYTimes article?) Am enjoying it, so thank you for that. Aside: I practice a form of (centering) prayer that founds itself in sitting quietly with the intention of being in the presence of the Divine Indwelling (call “it” what you will; imagine it at your own peril!). Were I able to be more successful with selective silence in my non-“quiet time,” I could only smile at the possible peace.

  • Silence makes people uncomfortable, yet often the ones who could use it most seem compelled to fill it.

  • Wise post, Alex. As a college instructor, I employ silence just as you posited and encourage my students to do the same as an act of critical thinking and of intellectual inquiry. Too often they have neither the confidence to express themselves nor to realize they always have much to learn from others. They always teach me something. That said, being silent is still a mindful act when busy semesters loom over us.

    On a somewhat similar note of being attentive, I wonder if you might, in a future post, address the current discussion in the media of “holistic” medical care. That is, a patient’s doctors working together for the overall care of that patient in order to help the patient make difficult but informed decisions, say about certain questionable tests or end-of-life choices. I have been thinking about this issue a great deal lately in conjunction with health care reform and the idea of Buddhist non-attachment. Thank you so much for your words of wisdom. Always a thoughtful way to begin my week!

    Rhonda: Thanks for an interesting idea for a post. I’ll ruminate on it.


  • “Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?” — Sai Baba

    Can anything improve on the silence?

    It has to be something really kind, necessary, and true.

    Thank you for reminding me the importance of silence as a tool for a deeper connection with other human beings.

    You have inspired me to write a post about this topic and share this powerful message…

  • I am a massage therapist and I always, except for a few preliminary greetings and a preliminary question, try to remain silent before my client gets on the massage table in order that they can reveal what it is they are wanting, needing or thinking about on that particular day. I allow enough time between sessions, so that clients have enough time within certain time boundaries to talk about an issue if need be. I think doctors are too often not willing to listen because they do not allow enough time for appointments. Some issues are simple and can be resolved quickly, and other issues are more complex, and if the doctor does not take enough time to ask relevant questions and wait for the answers, he/she could, and does, miss important clues as to what the problem is.

    Cecilia: You’re absolutely right about doctors not allowing enough time for appointments. If only they could allow more. Then they might be able to create that space at the end of a visit (as you do) where they could make their patients feel they weren’t in a hurry to rush off to their next appointment but were actually interested in making sure all their patient’s concerns had been addressed.


  • Alex, per usual, another pertinent post delivered with sincerity, heart and intelligence. True silence and detachment is the key to empathy and compassion. Just a second of demanding this state allows one to take their emotional reaction out of the situation and allows them to access their true intelligence: the quiet mind/heart.

  • Good stuff, Alex. I teach leadership development workshops and listening is one of the most transformational lessons to learn and develop as an automatic response to problem solving. It takes an enormous leap of faith, self control and reflection to develop the arduous discipline of learning to listen long enough for intuitive insight to resolve problems from the point of reference of “what can I do about my problem” (rather than look to blame something or someone), then listening for the answer from those involved in the situation who will likely have a solution.

    Transformational…because true listening develops strength in other people, and that is the true mark of a leader.

    Maureen: What a great last line.


  • Wow, thank you. I really enjoyed this article. As someone who has been told her whole life that she talks too much, I love reading inspiring advice about silence. The older (and probably more mature) I get, the more I realize how important it is. Also, I feel the great impact it has on my life when I truly use it. I love that solemn feeling of self-control, and I have never felt it as much as when I take a step back and think in silence.

    I look forward to reading & learning more from you in the future. 🙂

  • Gee, Alex. I sat next to you for an entire year in Mr. Gilbert Martin’s Physics M class and had no idea you are so profound! Who’d a thunk.

    Mike: I’m as surprised as you are. And nice to hear from you after all these years!


  • Alex,

    Cool post. It’s all I’ve done today—read your archives from tip to toe :). You made my Monday, the bluest day of the week, bright and shiny!!

    About your thoughts on silence. It’s so perfectly true. I studied Communicative English and Literature as an undergraduate, and our professors often dealt with the positive force of silence in their lectures. It really can work wonders. Especially, has done so in my life. It has created a feeling of trust between me and my friends, sometimes even with strangers whom I’ve spent just a few hours at a waiting room perhaps. And to know I can be trusted by friends and strangers alike, is just about the most beautiful feeling in the world :).

    Thanks once again. Maybe now I ought to forward this post to a few of my chatterbox friends too!!

    VerseZ: I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed my posts and that they made your Monday a little bit brighter! Thanks for all your comments.


  • This can be a method to encourage thinking but be careful not to use it in a manipulative sense where the feeling of social uncomfortableness is engendered in the group. In this case the first person to answer will be the one who is most empathetic and wishes to relieve this uncomfortableness; and what, really, has been accomplished. I think there are better ways to set it up…i.e., you could state a time limit to think, etc. Just my opinion.