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The Art Of Silence

There are a great many experts, books and training courses teaching the art of questioning techniques.  There are fewer, however, which talk about the importance of listening skills, and yet this is a crucial skill for advisers.

In this blog I’d like to share a few ideas, and in particular consider the skilful use of silence.

In the wrong hands, silence can seem arrogant, conceited, or just plain rude, but, if used correctly, silence can allow the other person in the conversation time and space.

Take the example of two people, Sue and Bob, who meet at a party.   Sue asks Bob what he does for a living.  Bob talks.  When he seems to be running dry, Sue asks about his hobbies.  She enquires as to the health of his business.  After an hour, he has been talking almost the entire time, and she has barely said a word.

On the way home, his wife, Rita, asks him if he had a nice time.  “Oh yes” Bob replies “I met a lovely lady, she was really interesting.”

We all like to talk about something we know a lot about, and we are all experts on ourselves.  At a party this may come across as boorish, but in a consultancy situation, or an interview, we can use this to our advantage.

A good interviewer asks a question.  One question, with no additional explanation.  For example “Who do you think will win the Ashes Series this summer?”

A bad interviewer (yes, I am looking at you Mr Ross) will ask several questions in one and offer a leading opinion to boot.  “Who will win the Ashes Series, I reckon England have got a good chance this time, especially with Ponting having retired, wasn’t he a great player.”

Listen to yourself next time you ask someone a question.  It is amazing how much we lead the other person, and how many times the first question is lost because we add a second question.

All the time we are talking, the other person is not thinking.  The only time that person can be allowed to think is when we shut up.

I would suggest the following would be a mantra for anybody looking to interview or question another person:

  1. What is the piece of information you require?

  2. Ask a short, specific question about that piece of information

  3. Shut up

What follows may well be a silence.  It is tempting to fill that silence with more words, questions.  However, that silence is thinking time for the other person.  The more you speak, the less they think.

If the silence continues, then allow it.  Eventually, the other person will either seek clarification or answer the question.

Now, take this a step further. Suppose they answer the question.  Try continuing to keep silent. The other person doesn’t like silence either, and what typically will happen is they will answer your question again, but this time in a much deeper and more meaningful way.  You have allowed their subconscious to think the question through, and have gained a much more interesting answer because of it.

It will also give you time to make notes, and to really hear the answer that comes back. The effective use of silence increases depth of thought, and allows better listening.

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