Silence is golden – or is it? What to do when people don’t speak up
Robert sat there with his arms folded. He dropped his head a little, widened his eyes and looked up at me with an expression that was hard to accurately read.
Was he still engaged with the discussion? I think so but was it positive or negative engagement?
I suspect the latter because my almond had already started smoking! My amygdala must have become aware of his body language and change of facial expression momentarily after we began talking about the way negative emotional responses infect the team around you.
I wondered what was going on for him. Was it The Almond Effect®? He had just received some challenging information from his personal profile. And a co-facilitator had given him similar feedback about the negative emotional impact his management style had on others. I suspect the current conversation was ‘hitting a nerve’ and resonating uncomfortably with him.
Do you notice someone going quiet?
He wasn’t happy – that much was clear. His silence, the subtle shift in body language and eyes told me that he was withdrawing from the conversation.
I’m not sure how many others noticed. Certainly no-one in the rest of the group said anything.
And it got me wondering. How many meetings or discussions do we attend where someone simply holds back, doesn’t do or say anything because they are in fight/flight/freeze mode?
We lose valuable input, ideas and challenges because, without effective self-management, we ourselves may experience The Almond Effect® when we see it in others.
We recognise The Almond Effect® when it shows up in explicit ways. For example, people become aggressive, walk out of meetings, go home sick, get together in the lunch room or via Facebook, send nastily toned emails, make mistakes or simply don’t show up.
Yet withdrawal can be just as damaging because we no longer have full engagement, participation and contribution. In fact we may mistake someone’s silence as implied agreement and consent to a course of action, when unknown to us, we have a silent saboteur in the room.
We are more likely to notice when an extrovert withdraws. But it can be harder to tell if an introverted thinker is simply thinking about the issue or has made a decision to withdraw their contribution.
How can we tell if the silence is golden or a problem?
How much time do you spend actively noticing emotional reactions in your interactions i.e. focussing beyond the content of what you want to say? We are all busy, we all need to get stuff done in a hurry. Looking for and responding to emotional cues requires focus and energy. So it’s not surprising that we might miss some of the more subtle signals.
Yet I know that I am not the only one who has regretted not picking up on something in a conversation. Have you ever been there? At the extreme, it could result in a horrendous outcome – someone harms themselves because they are clinically depressed and we either haven’t noticed or if we do, we think:’ I haven’t got time to deal with this now’ or: ‘it’s not my job to deal with this”.
The Black Dog Institute encourages us to take the time to ask “R U OK?” when we notice that someone might be in a dark emotional space.
How can we become better at interpreting silences?
One way is to learn to really focus on what is going on beyond the actual words. Mindfulness is a skill that helps us develop self-awareness and self-management skills which in turn helps us master the ability the read the emotions of others.
It works by teaching us to how to keep control of our own emotions, minimise distracting thoughts and concentrate of what is happening around us at that moment.
If you go here you will find a simple explanation of mindfulness and some techniques to develop it.
Ask the right questions
Another leadership skill in these situations is to ask questions, the right questions of the quiet ones. If their withdrawal is caused by The Almond Effect® then your purpose is to actively engage them in a thinking activity which may help to dampen down the amygdalic activity. This means asking questions that are open-ended and require an answer.
Here are some to give you a flavour of what I’m thinking about here:
- What roadblocks can you see with …………in your area?
- How will this be received in your team?
- Specifically, thinking about how it impacts you/your area, what are the items we must take into account?
- What would it take for this to gain traction in your area?
- If you were me, what would you do about……
Getting your kids to open up
It is not just at work that people withdraw. In a recent workshop discussing the language of emotions and feelings, one participant shared a fabulous strategy to open the door for more meaningful conversations with our children.
Single word answers like ‘good’, ‘OK’, are not allowed in response to questions like: ‘How was school?,’ ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What do you think about that?’ What a smart parenting and leadership idea!