Uses of silence, #2

Previously here and here.

I've heard from people in a surprisingly wide array of professional and personal roles about the usefulness of sitting mum and making the other person talk. To start off, one about TV interviewing style, from a 2006 episode of Brothers & Sisters written by Molly Newman. After the jump, illustrations from deal-making, medicine, sales, and religion. More to come.

(Given that it's Sunday, see if anyone dares apply this approach on the Sunday Talk Shows.)

From various readers:

Silence is also a wonderful negotiating tool. Combined with the appropriate emotional message (I have high expectations for what you are going to say next; I'm disappointed that you aren't doing better, is that really the best you can do, etc.) silence at a key point in the negotiations can lead to good things. It is much easier to say no to someone who is talking than to someone who is silent. Americans are very uncomfortable with silence!
I've also found that the people I interview need time to think and permission to get into details-- so "Tell me more" or "That's interesting" followed by an expectant silence may produce a whole new level of answers. But then the people I interview tend to be people who are not accustomed to being interviewed-- the silence works as an invitation and permission when they are used to only being able to speak briefly, and not really being listened to.


Physicians are often encouraged to employ a "cone-shaped" interviewing technique. The initial questions are broad--"So what seems to be the trouble today?" Only after the patient has had the chance to speak freely for a while do they become more targeted--"Now, tell me more about that headache; is it pounding or constant?"

I never cease to be amazed at the crucial information that emerges when I just shut up and let the patient tell me what's wrong with him.


I have been in sales a number of different times in my career. Silence is an especially valuable tool when selling, for pretty much the same reason. Clients are uncomfortable with the quiet and want to fill the air.

We always said, "Whoever talks first loses" but it isn't quite as simple as that. People will tell you things (if you just shut up!) when given the chance. Silence is the best way to handle it.


In my seminary classes in pastoral care and counseling, my professor emphasized the importance of silence as a listening skill, listening well being the most important skill in counseling. She encouraged us to become comfortable with silence and not to be the one to break it too quickly. She noted that brief pauses in conversations occur naturally, but the longer they last, the more uncomfortable people become with them. Her suggested practice was a simple one: when you start to feel uncomfortable, start counting slowly to ten. If the other person has not spoken by the time you get to ten, then you should break the silence. It is probably an indication that he or she wants you to pick up the conversation. In my experience as a pastor, I almost never make it to ten before the other person continues. The time spent in silence seems to convince them that I am truly listening (and, indeed, I am).

Of course, my use of silence is not about getting more of the story for journalistic purposes. My use of silence is about getting more of the story for helping purposes. And because I know this trick, when I speak with journalists, I'm alert to the stretched silence and how it works. The key to why it works seems to be that the stretched silence indicates that the interviewer is actually listening, taking the speaker seriously. And in my experience as a pastor, being heard and being taken seriously are two of the deepest needs of humans....I'll be quiet now.