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The Power of Silence in Managing Communication

Silence can be a self-caring haven. A retreat from the noisy stressful realm of everyday life – bathing in silence. It can be a ground for becoming more self-aware and for collecting one’s thoughts. It can be a way to get someone’s attention. And it can be uncomfortable.

In groups, silence can lead to suboptimal performance when used as a conscious passive-aggressive tactic or is a withholding of information. It may be driven by feelings like conflict aversion, anxiety, shyness, unworthiness, or laziness. Sometimes it is nothing more than forgetting to respond to an email, text, or call that has gone to the bottom of the to-do list. Sometimes it is a means for holding on to power and control.

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Silence As a Tactic

A long-respected model identifies five stages of team development – forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. Of these, storming is the most critical and the most difficult to work through, particularly if one or more members of the team are averse to conflict.

Silence as a tactic is the purposeful cutting off of communication, without warning or explanation, to avoid conflict or to freeze out someone who is seen as an opponent, an annoyance, or as a threat to the status quo. This is colloquially called ‘ghosting.’

An Example

In one situation, a manager, Jim, felt threatened by a team member, Sue, who challenged his ideas and raised the need for greater attention to project management processes. The manager did not respond to Sue’s calls, texts, or emails that addressed her concerns. Jim ignored her when she requested a one-on-one conversation. In one instance Jim publicly complemented another team member for something initiated by Sue. Jim made a show of being cordial to Sue in front of others while avoiding any one-on-one contact.

Silence Gets in the Way of Storming

It becomes impossible to address conflicts and address relationship issues when individuals do not allow for dialog by disengaging, ghosting individuals, or otherwise cutting communication. This becomes even more damaging when the team has not gone through a forming process to identify roles, goals, and ground rules.

Without well-managed storming, the team is faced with unhealthy relationships and ineffectual conflict throughout its life. The result is suboptimal performance.

Withholding Input: The Abilene Paradox

Another type of silence in teams is the silence of withholding. It leads to poor decisions and unhealthy relationships because it robs the team of valuable information.

The Trip to Abilene is a story by Jerry B. Harvey about how four intelligent and well-meaning people took an unpleasant trip to somewhere that none of them wanted to go.   One came up with a suggestion to take the trip. Each of the others failed to say that they did not want to go because they did not want to disappoint the others.  The one who made the suggestion also did not want to go, he thought the others might like the trip. Had anyone spoken up and said what they felt and why the group would have been happy to stay put and enjoy their time together at home.

The Abilene Paradox is a phenomenon that takes its name from this anecdote. It is the cause of many a misstep by teams and organizations. People do not speak their mind when what is in their mind is opposed to the perceived general opinion of the people around them. In the paradox, people are consciously aware that they oppose the idea and are acting contrary to their own thoughts and insights.

People don’t speak up because it takes effort to come to the table with a compelling argument. More often they may think that what they have to say is unimportant, stupid, and/or bound to upset someone. They may fear retribution and censure a fear that is quite rational given many examples of persecuted whistleblowers and of the negative effects of arguing against a favored idea, design, plan, etc.

Harvey quoted Herbert Porter a Nixon campaign aid as saying that he “was not one to stand up in a meeting and say that this should be stopped”, a decision he then attributed to “the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player.”  Porter was referring to the Watergate scandal.

Few will risk saying that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes brings out the difficulty of saying what you think. In this story, a vain emperor is tricked into believing that he was getting a suit of clothes that could only be seen by the most intelligent people.  No one but a child had the courage to appear unintelligent and tell the emperor that he wasn’t wearing any clothes.  The emperor himself was too vain to admit that even he couldn’t see the new suit.

Whatever the reason, not speaking up results in suboptimal performance and trips to Abilene.

What to Do – Mindfully Manage Communications

Silence whether it is used as a tactic or is the withholding of information, damages team performance.

It can be addressed by paying conscious attention to the communication process.  Managing communication is arguably the most important aspect of project management. With well-managed communication, teams can avoid or heal unhealthy relationships, address conflicts, and make the most effective decisions

The communication process must be a subject for team discussion and fine-tuning to address the issue of silence. This is best done during the forming stage of team development as part of setting ground rules. Regular attention to the communication process is needed throughout the team’s life to make sure that the ground rules are effective and are being followed.

Mindfulness, self-awareness, self-management, as well as respect and empathy for others, are foundations for effective communication. Cultivate these and do your best to ensure open communication.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.