Silence is Golden
Silence is a very interesting concept to me, because when used well it can be a very powerful weapon in your college success arsenal. Silence can be awkward – and therein lies the power. People will do almost anything to avoid feeling awkward! If you can control silence by not being afraid to use it and not getting uncomfortable, then you can exert some control over a conversation, a presentation, an interview, or even a date!
The following are a few applications of intentional silence that I have found are easy to implement and can result in the user gaining some form of power in the conversation.
- Negotiations – When you are in a negotiation, there is always a (real or perceived) power struggle between the two parties. I have found that the negotiator who has better control over the use of silence will generally hold more power in the negotiation. What do I mean by “control over the use of silence“? In a negotiation, information is power; so, if you can get the other party to tell you something they did not originally plan to reveal, you can use that to your advantage. How can you do that? In the information gathering phase before you suggest your solution, you need to ask a lot of questions. After you pose a question, you’ll know the other person has finished answering when they stop talking. Typically, you’d interpret this as the time for you to ask another question, or fill the silence something else.
But what happens if you say nothing? Most often, if you allow a period of silence after the other person has finished answering your question, they will keep talking and add further detail. This additional information was not a part of their original answer and may contain important details you can use in your argument against them.
- Interviews – The bad news for us is that, usually, interviewers already know this little trick. When they are interviewing you, if they are a good interviewer, they will leave an almost uncomfortable silence between questions to prompt you to share more information. When the pause occurs, you begin to feel like your original answer was not good enough. You start to panic a little and try to answer the question again, but your second answer is given under much more stress and is usually not your best work. Interviews are already pretty stressful for most of us, but remember that knowledge is power. Use this knowledge to your own advantage in the interview!
You can either a) stand by your original answer confidently and sit smiling in uncomfortable silence until the interviewer breaks it with a new question, or b) elaborate upon your answer, but without the additional stress that your fellow candidates will undergo, because you were ready for this. The interviewer’s job is to make you feel a little discomfort and stress to see how you perform under these conditions. Now you can impress them when you stay cool because you knew this was coming!
- Class Presentations – A third application for silence that I have found to be useful for college students is in giving presentations, where you need to either keep an audience’s attention or, even more challenging, get your audience to participate. Class presentations, especially ones over 20 minutes, are a challenge and are becoming more and more common as a part of college curriculums. As you prepare your presentation, think of how you can use silence to your advantage in your delivery. A pause for emphasis is a pretty easy technique. Asking rhetorical questions is always a good way to go – ask a question and pause long enough for them to think of an answer (and feel a little pressure that they may have to answer it themselves), then answer it yourself. This keeps your audience paying attention and following along without actually engaging them. This technique is good if you have a very strict timeline and cannot afford to have someone answer your question with a lengthy or controversial response.
Lastly, if you do need to fill up some time and facilitate a discussion, or even a debate, you will need to ask questions. Confidently pause and wait for an answer. If you wait long enough and don’t lose your cool, someone will always come up with an answer. Additionally, after you set the tone that you are willing to wait an uncomfortable amount of time for an answer, others in the class will more willingly participate for the remainder of your presentation.
These are just a few tips I’ve learned along the way, so try them out next time you’re having a conversation and see what happens. I think you’ll find that when you have mastered the art of silence, you will feel much more in control of any situation. My last piece of advice on the issue is this: Look out for others who have mastered this concept – you may end up in an exceedingly awkward staring contest!