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Managing pressure at work: Managing the wall of silence

The prospect of an interviewee quietly thinking out a good answer can often seem preferable to an instant burst of incoherent talk

Gulf News

Anyone with experience of stress counselling will have often have found themselves on the receiving end of that unnerving ‘silent response'. Learning how to handle silence is an important skill in the management of stress.

Not that silence is always unwelcome. The prospect of an interviewee quietly thinking out a good answer can often seem preferable to an instant burst of incoherent talk. But generally we react badly to silence during a conversation.

It appears to go against the rhythm of human dialogue, and can unsettle both parties.

Consider, for example, the long tradition of ‘small talk'. Indeed one of the most brilliant managers I can remember did not believe in ‘small talk'; if he had nothing worth saying, he just kept quiet. The result was that he was often overlooked, and he missed the promotion that he really deserved.

Silence, therefore, can be a barrier to understanding that needs to be broken down by trust that whatever we say will not be used against us or as an indication of weakness.

One cause can be fear. Perhaps direct fear of the other person, who might be the current employer and able to penalise a wrong answer by interpreting it as a character weakness that might go against future promotion, or even the current employment.

Inarticulacy

Another factor is often awareness of one's own inarticulacy and the danger of making a fool of oneself.

Or more often, under-confidence about one's own abilities — nearly always exaggerated, as any stress counselling expert will confirm. Before trying to break the silence, it is worth asking whether it is you who may be causing it by establishing an unfavourable atmosphere. Here are my five standard tips:

1. Avoid confrontational posture: Arrange for the two of you to sit at an angle so dialogue feels engaging and involving: a conversation, not a cross-examination.

2. Don't refer to the silence itself: If you comment directly on the ‘silent response', it will sound critical and intimidating. Try instead to probe the cause in order to elicit an answer.

3. Encourage hesitant speakers: Respond by steadily feeding back that which you have heard, to show you understand, rather than judging and criticising.

4. Employ ‘active listening' techniques: Use well-proven methods to help the conversation go forward through minimal interventions.

5. Stimulate speech through options: Use the sales technique: instead of waiting for a comment, ask an ‘open' question such as "Would you rather ‘x' or ‘y'…?", in order to provoke an answer.

Have you been met by that discouraging ‘wall of silence'? Can you tell us of any successes in overcoming the fear or the protest of a reluctant speaker? Leave your comment at gulfnews.com/business/opinion.

The author is a BBC guest-broadcaster and Motivational Speaker. She is CEO of an international stress management and employee wellbeing consultancy based in London. Contact them for proven stress strategies - www.carolespiersgroup.co.uk

Keypoints

  • Stress counsellors are often faced with a ‘wall of silence'.
  • Silences need to be broken by recognising the factors involved.
  • There are proven methods to ensure dialogue.

The author is a BBC guest-broadcaster and Motivational Speaker. She is CEO of an international stress management and employee wellbeing consultancy based in London. Contact them for proven stress strategies –
www.carolespiersgroup.co.uk

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