The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Let silence do the heavy lifting

A school is a place where we are absorbing a constant stream of information all day long. John Dabell explores the impact of silence during conversation and gives tips on using it to your benefit.

Quiet moments and silence are essential for everyone, especially in a school. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (2015) reminds us that, we need silence as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.

To empower real conversations, leaders need to let silence do the heavy lifting

Silence might be hard to achieve given the relentless nature of school life but there are moments when it is needed from a leadership point of view. School leaders talk a lot, it goes with the job. But they can talk too much sometimes. There are occasions when holding back and incorporating silence into our communication is the best option.

An eloquent silence

To empower real conversations, leaders need to let silence do the heavy lifting. Meetings are a good example of where silence is needed but where it is often a stranger or unwelcome presence. 

Such is the need to fill the void, silence can be scary and unsettling for some, even for a few seconds because we aren't used to having thinking and breathing time. 

Our need to fill the vacuum is sometimes so overwhelming that we can't help ourselves and must jump right in. Why? Silence builds tension but it doesn't have to be this way. 

Yet silence is golden. It can give us clarity and help us to see what we need to say more clearly. It provides a platform to ponder and gives us the mental space to sort and get things done. 

As Catherine Ducharme (2020) says. In the silence, the work can be done. It’s where the magic happens. Connections are made. Insights arise. Realizations emerge. Learning is sparked. Truths are recognized. Emotions surface. 

To help us think, we need to be comfortable with silence and use it as a tool for doing the heavy lifting. Knowing when not to speak is a fine leadership skill that requires emotional intelligence because it allows others to speak their minds and take the lead themselves.

Speech is silver but silence is golden 

During professional and personal one-to-one conversations, your silence can speak volumes about who you are. Giving people time to speak is a gift but only when combined with authentic and active listening. 

Listening and giving someone your full attention without getting distracted is a skill but this silent treatment communicates respect and lets others know they are valued. 

Remaining silent when someone is talking and listening generously allows the speaker valuable time and space to share their thoughts. It also allows them to hit upon a solution to a problem themselves. 

This might require letting go of the urge to take control but is necessary for a speaker to feel fully heard and supported and facilitates a meaningful exchange. Where there is an exchange of words then don't be afraid to let pauses remain. Silence allows you to learn more about colleagues and how you can best help them. 

Weak silence has been used in classrooms as an oppressive tool

Being strategically silent and picking your moment means knowing when your silence has completed its work and the moment is right to step in and speak. This is particularly relevant when dealing with conflict and emotionally charged moments where silence and stillness are paramount as it allows you to offer a measured response. 

During a presentation strategically planning a prolonged pause is a moment to give colleagues time to digest what you have said as people have different processing speeds. It gives everyone precious time to consider new information before responding and asking relevant questions. 

A silent pause after asking a question also lets colleagues know that you expect an answer. Creating a gap of silence helps to drive discussions towards meaningful outcomes.

Silent meetings 

Are our meetings fraught and filled to the brim because there is no time to absorb and reflect?

You could start your meeting in one of three ways: 

  1. a minute of silence
  2. a minute of silence and a reading 
  3. a minute of silence and a joke. 

You could also start it by giving out the agenda at the start of the meeting rather than beforehand, this ensures everyone is on the same page. In silence, everyone reads it, makes notes and writes questions on their copy of the agenda which allows everyone to tune in and think.

Silence makes space for reflection, new perspectives, and ideas

Using quiet as a silent brainstorming think tank strategy can also be used at any point in a meeting where it is more beneficial to just think things through without chatter, distractions, and dominant voices. This can facilitate critical thinking and lead to well-thought-out feedback. 

Silence, therefore, creates a pause that adds more meaning to what's being discussed and provides a space for people to produce their ideas before listening to others. When debating an issue in a meeting, leaders might be tempted to pitch in early with their thoughts and opinions. 

But as leadership expert Simon Sinek (2011) explains 'You don’t agree or disagree or give away what you’re thinking – but rather, you take input, and you ask questions to better understand where their perspective comes from. And, at the end of it, not only do you make everyone else feel heard, but you also get the benefit of all their thinking.' 

Shutting up open opens doors to communication as listening lets your colleagues know that their feelings, thoughts, and contributions are valued, and helps them feel more comfortable expressing their views.

A welcome silence

Silence makes space for reflection, new perspectives, and ideas to show up and provides time for people to dig deeper, avoiding shallow responses and solutions. It is a more mindful approach. Although the right words at the right time can work wonders, silence can speak volumes although not when it is disengaging or undermining (Chang, Chou and Han, 2018)

Silence isn't dead air, and it doesn't have to be awkward, it can be awash with words without anyone saying a thing. Interestingly, planned silence and wait time is something many teachers integrate into their lessons as an effective and cost-free pedagogic tool (Lees, 2012) but we don't seem to use this in meetings as a democratic and reflective practice. 

Weak silence has been used in classrooms as an oppressive tool whereby children are punished or controlled but 'strong' silence has a high participation ratio and is used to unlock potential and thinking.

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