Why Knowing How to Be Quiet Improves Your Communication

Susannah Magers

As an extrovert, talking is my chosen form of self expression: Verbal communication is how I process and synthesize information, empathize with and relate to others, and most effectively convey my ideas.

The ability to collect my thoughts and verbally translate them is one I consider essential to my lifelong practice of becoming a more effective communicator. However, it’s precisely because talking is my default way of communicating that I may not always be aware of opportunities to do the exact opposite — to resist the urge to respond, take a pause, and keep quiet. 🤫 

If you’re an extrovert (and a talker) like me, you may have a hard time knowing when to be silent, and how to keep quiet. But here’s the thing: Just like speaking up, making eye contact, and being a good listener, the ability to gauge when to stay silent in interpersonal interactions is a skill that should be developed and incorporated into how we manage teams, participate in group projects and activities, and communicate at work. Here’s why keeping quiet can be a challenge, why the ability to be quiet matters, and some tips and ideas on how to practice being quiet in your communication with friends and colleagues alike. 

Why some of us find it hard to be quiet 🗣

In a deeply individualistic, productivity-obsessed culture where being bold and taking up space is considered a competitive edge, it’s no surprise that extroversion is considered and reinforced as a desirable trait and silence is avoided. In other words, we’re trained that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, which doesn’t necessarily cultivate mindfulness as a practice. 

The bias towards extroversion as a communication strength affects our work relationships and dynamics as well. There are still stereotypes about what character attributes make a great leader — namely, strong opinions, voiced often and without hesitation — and we tend to view shyness, introversion, and social anxiety as synonymous when they’re not.

Because of extroversion bias, teams can inadvertently perpetuate biased workplace communication dynamics that hinder everyone’s participation. I’m referring to a cycle in which the same team members default to roles that prevent them from engaging in different, meaningful ways — say, the person who always volunteers to take notes, prepare the agenda, or send out follow-up action items. Defaulting to certain roles doesn’t necessarily mean people are less likely to participate verbally throughout the meeting, but it’s worth looking at these meeting dynamics and adjusting them to ensure everyone’s given the chance to have their perspectives represented.

Assigning out these ways to participate is not necessarily the antidote to stagnant systems, nor is calling on people in the moment, which may be in direct conflict with their preferred communication style. But asking your team on a regular basis how projects, updates, and asynchronous and synchronous time is spent and what changes could be made to improve these processes is a great place to start.

Stop talking: The benefits of silence 

We hear a lot about the impact of active listening on becoming a more effective communicator and how introverts should speak up, but we don’t hear much about how actively choosing not to talk is in itself a practice and a communication skill.

Staying quiet is a communication strength in itself. Instead of asking introverted people or a more quiet person to behave more like their extroverted counterparts, we should adapt the workplace communication playbook to be more flexible and open to their contributions on their terms. Clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP notes: “Society tends to value extroverts because they are more vocal or better presenters. But we have to recognize that introverts process information in a way that promotes creativity and problem-solving because they talk less and listen more. There is huge value to that.”

Along with improving your communication skills and the quality of your interpersonal experiences at work and beyond, knowing how to keep quiet has myriad health benefits, including restoring your cognitive resources so you can focus better.

In particular, quiet time gives you a chance to reflect on and more deeply process what’s been said, lowering your blood pressure, decreasing your heart rate, and steadying your breathing — all signs that the human nervous system is relaxing and moving away from flight or fight mode. As your nervous system relaxes, being quiet creates space for your brain to foster creativity and to develop more profound thoughts (and responses).

So if you’re a talkative person like me? We should embrace staying quiet more often and letting silence be OK. We can participate in nonverbal ways with gestures (a thumbs up or emoji reaction, for example), eye contact, and facial expressions, and ask for feedback or continue the conversation in an asynchronous format, leaving things open for people to respond in their own time when they’re ready.

3 tips to practice being quiet

Below are some ways to embrace being quiet, and how choosing silence benefits your social interactions and workplace communication.

1. Build an intentional practice of self-awareness.

Self-awareness is a practice of self-examination of our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. It comes into play in our communication with others: People who talk incessantly without pausing to let others speak, for example, could be considered lacking in self-awareness. 

Developing your own sense of self-awareness is the first step in knowing how and when to either speak up or be silent when communicating with others.

Artist and author Jenny Odell says, “A big part of eventually having something worthwhile to say is having the right to say nothing for some amount of time.” In other words, staying silent can be a gift to yourself — removing pressure to perform, sure, but also giving yourself permission to not produce for the sake of appearance or production.

Another way to think about self-awareness and silence is to consider how silence allows space for our words to land and be absorbed. If people are too busy trying to keep up — think college lectures where, despite taking pages and pages of notes, retention of what was said is hazy at best because you were laser-focused on catching every last word — your message is compromised.

2. Practice asking yourself why (or why not) to speak up.

Before you speak, ask yourself: Am I speaking up to hear myself talk? Or do I genuinely have something valuable to contribute? 

People often talk because they want to sound smart, not because they have useful insights to share that others would benefit from hearing. Recognizing that — being self aware and practicing interrogating our motivations in this way — will help us learn to make space and stay quiet.

During a Q&A with Loom Co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas during our recent virtual offsite, Jeff Weiner, Executive Chairman and former CEO of LinkedIn, echoed this theme around rethinking the true intentions behind how and why we communicate:

"All too often we listen with the intent to reply instead of to understand. We’re just waiting to get our point across, to prove something, instead of just listening. We have a tendency to communicate to make our point instead of to be understood."

— Jeff Weiner, Executive Chairman and former CEO of LinkedIn

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself if you’re considering speaking up or staying silent:

  1. Why do I want to contribute right now? Who benefits if I do or do not?

  2. What do I actually risk if I don’t speak up? 

  3. Will my work be directly impacted?

  4. Whose opinion or buy-in do I most care about or need? Do I need to get feedback now?

  5. What are the benefits of waiting to share this information?

  6. Who might choose to speak up if I don’t? 

  7. What could others contribute that I can’t?

3. Take pauses in presentations and incorporate moments of silence.

What’s so uncomfortable about “uncomfortable silence”?

A study on the effects of silence in group settings found our physiological response to fill silence is because of our social needs: namely, to feel included and part of the group. But pushing past the very real psychological discomfort of silence and taking a pause when speaking — in real-time or asynchronously — encourages listeners to move beyond an emotional (fear-based) response and tap into a different cognitive mindset. 

Have you ever posed a question or volunteered some information to your team that was met with silence, which can definitely feel uncomfortable? It’s tempting to fill that silence yourself. What if instead of letting your mind go toward the assumption that your colleagues’ silence means they are judging what you said negatively, you leaned into the conversational pause as a way to let your questions and ideas sink in, be more thoroughly considered, and responded to in more depth?

According to Matthew MacLachlan, a language and communication skills training provider, introducing pauses was a key communication tactic of Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs when he launched the first iPhone (and we know how that turned out!). 😎

Notice how in the first minute of his keynote at the Macworld conference on January 9, 2007, Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs takes multiple pauses in between introducing each of three new products. 

In a similar vein, Joe Thomas embraces "awkward silences" in company all-hands meetings. While he's open about how uncomfortable it is, it also leads to open space where people can ask questions they might otherwise not. In fact, Joe frequently starts all-hands meetings with 60 seconds of silence: “I’m OK with silence. I think it’s a period of time for us to reflect and think, you don’t have to fill the space. Active listening with the intent to understand means you have to be comfortable with processing time. Silence is a tool to utilize with active listening.”

Strike a balance between being quiet and speaking up

So what does knowing when and how to be quiet mean for you and the people you interact with? The goal is not perfection, but arming yourself with reasonable, easily replicated preparation methods will help you progress in practicing being quiet. 

One of those methods is the step up, step back communication paradigm, which I became familiar with in a social justice and arts context. In many ways, the idea rings true and can be applied in any workplace: literally passing the mic (or the megaphone — you get the idea) to the next person to speak. But who is passing the mic, and who gets access to the mic?

The main idea behind “step up, step back” is to practice keeping track of who historically has been given latitude to speak and take up space in any given context. It’s also known as owning and wielding your privilege for good — learning how to use the advantages you may benefit from related to how you are perceived and how you communicate.

Another framing of this idea to practice mindful engagement is “move up, move up,” a more inclusive term which acknowledges the ableist connotations of the action of stepping and identifies that both activities, whether listening or sharing your voice, are ways of movement and opportunities for growth and contribution to an environment of effective communication.

Truly effective workplace communication involves a give and take between talking and listening. The next time you catch yourself waiting for your turn to talk (at the expense of being fully present for the conversation) or trying to get in the last word, take a pause and ask yourself what’s at stake if you don’t add your two cents immediately. Would an asynchronous follow-up be appropriate? Will your idea be best received at this moment in time? Chances are it can wait; after all, what’s the harm in sitting with an idea for a longer period of time until it’s more fully baked?

Are there moments when you’ve been unsure whether to speak up, stay quiet, or both in your daily life? Let us know.

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Written by Susannah Magers

Susannah is a Loom alum.

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