Dan Erwin: Decision making

How Silence Can Work in Your Favor

Silence works exceptionally well in many interpersonal situations. That’s especially true, for example, in a problem solving or conflict-oriented situation. In such contexts, strategic silence is often one of your best approaches to resolution. It’s an interpersonal behavior used when talk is expected. Someone has a pressing reason to talk, but does not talk and does not explain their silence.

So, when a person violates expectations by silence, the other’s attention is riveted on the silence. It violates expectations and typically leaves the other with “silence nerves.” A tension based on the innate need for social connections and relationships among humans. A tension often so strong that it defines the person—the initiator of the silence.

For example, I was recently involved in a highly frustrating situation with my website provider. Since my blogging and regular interactions were either via email or Typepad, I had decided that my website served no significant purpose and there was no reason to continue the monthly financial payment. Since my email worked out of the website, I contacted my provider and asked to keep the email. That was not possible, but I could purchase a simple stand-alone email site for just a few bucks a month. I also agreed to purchase a transfer process from a provider. But before I had worked thru the password issues for Outlook to transfer those archives and data, the hosting firm closed down my website. The provider sent me to the stand-alone email site, but I needed passwords from my old site to transfer all the data from that site. The agent worked with me for easily half an hour to transfer the material, but we failed. I couldn’t get the new site up and running and the agent couldn’t go online. Frustrated, he asked whether there wasn’t a more experienced person to do the work for me, an obvious snub. I had followed his instructions at least three times, but none of my passwords worked, resulting in a great deal of frustration for him. Clearly, he saw me as inept. I asked whether he could pass me up to his supervisor and his first response was negative. After ten minutes of more screwing around during which I said nothing, I asked again and this time I was passed on to a supervisor. In effect I rejected his definition of me—and he finally accepted my decision.  

The supervisor and I walked through the new email process twice, like the former agent. It failed both times. Then he suggested it might be a cache problem, so I followed his cache deleting instructions. That resolution brought me to the “create a new email” site. But we needed an accurate password to create a new email site and transfer all my materials. I had worked with the hosting firm for more than ten years so I had a number of passwords, but none of them worked, making transfer impossible. I owned the password problem, but here’s where the issue got messy. Because of the firm’s privacy issues, my contact couldn’t retrieve the working password. I was silent while he searched. He slowly went up the ladder, finally telling me that I’d have to handle the issue by paper and that it would probably take a week or two to get the password. I clarified quietly and slowly, “you’re telling me that I won’t be able to use an email for a week?” He didn’t respond. I remained silent. “Let me try something else” he finally said. That failed. I remained silent. So, he said, he might have another option. I remained silent. That failed. I remained silent. Finally, he said he didn’t think there were any other options except the paper route. I remained silent. Then he commented, “you’re not saying anything.” I very slowly and quietly remarked, “I don’t think you need to hear my anger” –and said nothing else. He was silent for a long time, as was I. My silence gave him no clues of how to work with me, so he was obviously playing around with the potential meanings of my silence. My past experience suggested that my silence was controlling the situation and the agent—exactly what I wanted. If I had talked, there was a high probability that I would have lost control of the situation. He would have responded to whatever I said, and taken back control.

Finally, he said that there was a “privacy team up the line, maybe they can help.” Again, I was silent. He said that he’d get back in a couple minutes. I remained silent. About three minutes later, he came back with both password and resolution of the problem. I responded quietly and with simplicity, “thank you.” The first agent was clearly both inept and pissed at me, a relation that brought practically nothing from me except silence, forcing the handover. The second agent revealed no serious frustration like the first. But my silence kept him from gaining control of the situation. “Silence,” however, drove his final search for me and ultimately resolved the problem.

Note well: Silence drives the resolution. Silence is tangible, the hard, strong presence that displays itself openly—so that we can’t escape its presence. The resolution is forced by the silence, not by me and not by the agent. If you can make that drastic mental shift, then tools and competencies assume a level of capacity that offers power that human persona cannot match. Our task as professionals, then, is to set these competencies free to operate in contexts of need.

On some occasions, however, silence does not violate expectations. It may be role silence, that of a subordinate to a superior--a sign of respect. Superiors may be silent toward others as a mark of their status. A senior person may not return a phone call or check in to update a subordinate. Though that kind of silence takes on meaning, it’s not strategic because it follows custom. In such customary settings the onus is inevitably on the subordinate to call the superior back.


It’s important to understand that strategic silence does not stand for, signify or symbolize the person. Instead, the behaviors actually create the person originating the silence. Silence controls the other. So, silence impacts us—and gradually creates us—our persona. It’s not just that the behaviors are different, but that the competency takes on a persona itself. Our task, then is to understand that persona in the contexts where it operates.

Processing strategic silence
Although silence is all around us, it becomes “strategic” only when talk is expected. Someone has a pressing reason to talk, but does not talk and does not explain their silence.

Strategic interpersonal silence is marked by a definite process, often involving a descriptive contextual comment, followed by a brilliant, daring, open question, then silence, then response from the “other,” then still another silence and then a more significant response, usually involving more significant clarity, a slight change of mind, and even material the person did not intend to share. It’s quite probable that the supervisor in the above case did not intend to go to the privacy team and resolve my issue. If I’d given him control, he’d quite happily have resolved the issue with paper and a week-long response. So, two silences or more in the rhetorical process are exceptionally useful. They tend to force a more thorough response. .

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