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Communicating Through Silence


Have you ever considered the sheer power silence has in our communications?  Think of the great communicators and storytellers to get a glimpse of the affect silence has on communication.  They use the pause to allow for comprehension or reflection.  Silence can also be unsettling, and in some situations silence is “deafening.”

V. Jensen (“Communicative Functions of Silence.” ETC Journal., 30, 249-257, 1973) discusses five functions of silence and assigns a positive and a negative value to each of them.  The functions she proposes are:

  1. A linkage function: Silence may bond two (or more) people or it may separate them.  Two people sitting just enjoying the company of the other versus an emotion backed silence filled with anger and frustration where you can feel the tension in the room.
  2. An affecting function: Silence may heal (over time) or wound.  Sometimes we need someone to be there without words, just to let a hurt heal, versus  seeking words of understanding and comfort when none are forthcoming.
  3. A revelation function: Silence may make something known to a person (self-exploration) or it may hide information. When in conversation a question may cause someone to pause because they are giving their response serious thought or it may be an indication that someone is unwilling to reveal what they are thinking or feeling.
  4. A judgmental function: Silence may signal assent and favor or it may signal dissent and disfavor.  Remember as a child asking your parents for permission to do something and their silence gave you either guarded permission or an explict denial for that request?
  5. An activating function: Silence may signal deep thoughtfulness (work) or it may signal mental inactivity.  You can see individuals in deep contemplation while focused on a task – they may not even know you are there, versus someone who is completely disengaged either in a day-dreaming or clueless state.

Silence doesn’t get the attention it deserves.  It is a powerful form of communication which we often use without thought.  With a better understanding of its significance we can become better 1) communicators and 2) readers of a person’s emotional state including, their intentions and how engaged they are.

Carpe diem,
James R. Dawson
Managing Partner, ADI Performance

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