CXO

Want a management tip? Learn when to shut up!

Shouting doesn't work. So try the silent treatment now and then. You might be amazed at the results. This edition of Artner's Law explains the do's and don'ts of keeping quiet.


There’s no shortage of books purporting to teach managers how to communicate. In fact, I just went to Fatbrain.com, our book vendor, and found 352 books under the listing: business communications, general. But I think there’s room for at least one more book on the subject. I’ve even got the title: How to succeed in business by learning when to shut up! In this column, I’ll explain why IT managers would be well advised to be selectively silent.

Physician, heal thyself!
Before I get to that, I need to start with a disclosure: Many folks here at TechRepublic feel I am the least qualified person imaginable to speak on the topic of silence as a management technique.

After all, they point out, it’s not as if I’m the quiet type.

They’re quite right. I’m not reticent about asking questions or speaking my mind. I think that’s part of the job. It’s also my nature.

However, that’s not the kind of silence I’m talking about.
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Selective silence
What I’m advocating does not require becoming a cipher or a wallflower. You can’t be a successful manager if you’re unwilling to express your opinions. You can’t lead if you won’t tell people where you want them to go.

What I’m pushing for is selective silence, a deliberate policy of occasionally being quiet, and allowing the other person to talk—in fact, forcing that person to talk.

Being strategically silent gives you some great benefits, particularly when you’re faced with a difficult situation. Rather than raising your voice, or ranting on and on in some endless monologue, use silence to force the other person to speak.

Human beings, like the rest of nature, abhor a vacuum. Silence makes us uncomfortable, and most of us will talk to fill up any holes in a conversation. Knowing this, you can sometimes use silence to your advantage.

How you can make silence work for you
Situation:
Your firm outsources its help desk operations, and over the past month, the response time has been much worse than specified in your service level agreement.

Proposed resolution #1:
When your account rep comes in to discuss the problem, you could get your contract out, point out where his company is in violation, and start yelling at the guy. That might work.

Proposed resolution #2:
On the other hand, what if you just quietly said, “Your performance is unacceptable.” And then, instead of going any further, you just stop and look at your rep. I think you might be surprised to find that the account rep becomes more accommodating and willing to make additional concessions, just to get you to speak again.

Situation:
Here’s an internal situation. One of your developers is three days late with a project milestone.

Proposed resolution #1:
You could go charging into her office and berate her, reminding her of the significance of the project, and how missing her milestone puts the whole project delivery date in jeopardy. That might work.

Proposed resolution #2:
Here’s an alternative strategy. Go into your developer’s office, look her in the eye, and calmly say, “You’re three days behind schedule.”

And then shut up.

Rather than immediately getting defensive when being yelled at, your developer might attempt to fill up that silence by being more open, and confiding about project difficulties that she would otherwise have covered up and attempted to deal with herself.



Things to remember
Now the goal here is not to use silence as a method of intimidating vendors and employees without yelling at them. The goal is to strategically use silence to elicit more information than you would get from yelling at someone.

For this strategy to be successful, you have to remember these things:
  • You have to actually shut up: It’s harder to be silent in a conversation than you might think. Try it a couple times, and you’ll see what I mean. When the other person starts to feel uncomfortable, you’ll start to feel uncomfortable. Don’t give in after the first thing they say.
  • Keep eye contact: You don’t need to be threatening, or give someone a nasty look, but if you’re not keeping eye contact while you’re silent, you’re letting the other person off the hook.
  • Use it sparingly: Like any other technique, selective silence loses its effectiveness if overused. As the name implies, be choosy about when to use it.

Last thoughts
Selective silence isn’t a panacea for all your management communication dilemmas. Nor will it always work. A good account rep, for example, will find ways to draw you back into the conversation by asking you specific questions that are almost, but not quite, rhetorical.

That said, if you keep quiet, maintain eye contact, and stay calm, you may find that selective silence is more effective than losing your temper.
We're talking about when to use silence to your advantage. Tell us about a time when this technique has helped you—or hurt you. To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Or, if you’d like to suggest a new “law” for Bob Artner to write about, send him an e-mail.

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