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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

Silence is Golden – why keeping quiet is the most important skill to master in business and in life

Imagine I was to offer you an amazing new product. Something that would make people sit up and pay more attention to what you said.

A product that would allow you to understand the people you interact with…that would help you negotiate deals, earn more money, become a better friend, parent, leader and partner…

How much would you be willing to pay?

What then if I told you it was free. Available without limit, here and now. What could it be?


The power of silence is immense. So much more can be achieved in life if you just let silence do it´s work. However, despite it being free and readily available, few people have a clue how to use it.

As a child I was always a chatterbox. I was very sociable, constantly talking with my friends.

This often got me into trouble at school. In my group our noise level was high. Ideas spun around in my head, I had to get them out. Words came out like machine gun fire ratatatat… listening was never on the agenda.

As kids, we all had nervous energy and shared remarks, comments and jokes at high speed.

My form teacher was forever telling me to keep quiet. On numerous occasions she would send me out of the class with a phrase ringing in my ears.

“Silence is golden!”

Unfortunately for me, she never explained what that phrase really meant.

As I grew older, I continued to be a chatterbox. I learned not to speak so much of course.

I could keep quiet. But not silent.

I would still have conversations running in my head. When other people were speaking, I would be preparing my response without absorbing or sometimes even listening to what they were saying.

My mind would be thinking and racing at high speed.

The words weren´t coming out of my mouth, but the talking didn´t stop.

That all changed about 15 years ago when I joined a group to improve my presentation skills. I learned there the power of simply staying quiet and keeping silent.

Since then I have discovered that silence is powerful, not just for presenting effectively, but in many other areas of life as well.

Let me explain by giving you three examples of where silence really is golden:

1) Public speaking

The group that I joined to improve my presentation skills was called Toastmasters. When I attended the first meeting I was left amazed by how well the people there spoke in public. It was truly amazing!

However, speaking in public is a skill that anyone can learn with time and practice. In any Toastmasters club you will see many people that have gained a proficient level of ability.

But then there are excellent speakers that stand out from the rest.

What makes these speakers special?

They have learned to pause.

They have mastered keeping silent.

There is nothing more impressive than a speaker who is willing to let there be silence in the middle of their speech. Most people just want to fill the void.

Silence is terrifying!

So much so that most people will fill the space with sounds such as “um” or “ah” or “like” … sounds known as “filler words”. But the expert speaker allows silence to do its work. Silence in a speech allows the listener to absorb the message. Silence adds punch to the message. It gives the speaker an aura of control, of power.

It is one of the hardest things to learn as a speaker, but probably the most effective way to influence others with a truly effective message is to add silence to a speech... to pause.

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause”

Mark Twain

Silence is golden!

2) Negotiating

I love negotiating. And I love learning the art of negotiation!

I went on my first negotiating course about 12 years ago and I have been hooked ever since. Learning from expert negotiators was painful to my ego though. The instructors would use what seemed to be mind games and Jedi techniques to throw me. They were like Judo or Aikido black belt sensei, whilst the other students and I were white belt novices.

Time and time again when we went through mock negotiation exercises, they would leave me stunned by how they would outmaneuver my thinking and get to what they wanted, leaving me with a bad deal whilst they walked off with the spoils.

From my negotiating courses, one of the most important skills I learned was to shut up, to keep quiet…to use silence.

Negotiating is all about getting to understand the person in front of you. The more you see them as an opponent to be beaten, the worse the outcome is likely to be. You must step into their shoes.

Negotiating requires probing the other side´s position with a series of open questions, to look for information about them, what they really want, what drives them, what blocks them. All the time you are looking for an edge... information to turn to your advantage…to drive the best deal.

To do this, you must be attentive to what the other side says. You are looking to glean everything you can. To see what they reveal.

You need to really listen…

You need to keep silent.

I had a great example of this just two weeks ago. I was negotiating a contract with a value of around a million dollars with a multinational consultancy firm. My aim was to reduce this quoted amount by at least 30% whilst maintaining the quality of the team and the delivery of the project.

It was an ambitious target.

In my second conversation with the consultancy firm´s partner, I asked one of the most powerful negotiating questions in my tool book (a topic for a later blog post) and then…I waited in silence.

The partner began to talk…and talk…and talk! I said nothing. He revealed to me his objectives, his timing and deadline, who the real decision maker was and some other details around how they expected to close the deal that I previously had no idea about.

The most important thing for me was not to butt in. (In these situations, it is so, so tempting!) However, in negotiations it is crucial not to interrupt or stop someone´s flow, especially when they are revealing information. I just let him go on. Even when he went silent, I waited, and he continued.

It was exactly how my masters had taught me! Like Aikido, I used his force and energy and need to talk to find a way to get virtually all the information I needed to get my deal.

Closing the deal, I got even more than my targeted discount. He also got the contract he really needed for his firm. Both of us were happy (but me more so!).

All from me keeping silent.

Silence is Golden!

3) Coaching

Over the course of my professional career I have led many teams. I started leading teams over thirty years ago with a small team of 4 people. Since then I have overseen teams with many direct reports and groups under them of typically around 50 people. I have also led an organization of almost 1,500 people.

All of that has given me experience of how to manage people. However, during that time, I never really understood what coaching was about. Until I got my own coach.

After receiving coaching myself, I transformed the way I managed my own team. Not just that, I was inspired to start my own executive coaching business.

The key learning I took away from receiving coaching and becoming a coach?

The power of keeping silent!

As a manager, my job, or so I thought, was to solve problems. To keep things running, no matter what.

Whenever anyone had an issue, I would be there with an answer.

I have been good at that. I would always step in, take responsibility and propose a solution.

Just what a good leader should do, right?

Well, maybe not.

Since being coached and, even more so since becoming a coach, I have learned that there is another way. Nearly always it is a better way.

It involves asking the person who has the problem to go through a process of investigation, of analysis, of reflection. When it comes to coaching, what people DON´T need is a packaged solution. You are not a superior being, a boss or a “super coach” that has all of the answers.

What people need is to find their OWN path. This is how they learn and develop.

As a coach, what I learned was to keep quiet.

I ask lots of questions when I am coaching. I have to hear what the other person has to say. I need to really listen.

They don´t want me to tell them what to do. They don’t want advice. They need to explore and find their own solution. As a coach I am there to facilitate that. As author and coach, Michael Bungay Stanier puts it, you must tell your “advice monster” to shut up. When your coachee is talking you must listen hard.

You must learn to keep silent.

It takes real effort to shut up when all your life you have been giving your opinion. However, it is one of the most stunning and rewarding things to witness when a coaching client finds that THEY have the answer.

They just needed help finding it.

I have since found that using a coaching approach as a leader at work has the same value. Once people got used to the fact that I was no longer there to provide all the answers, they began to find answers themselves. This way they learn and grow and THAT is what I am there to facilitate as a leader. It takes more listening and less talking.

Silence is Golden!

The three examples I mention above are important skills to learn if you want to become an outstanding leader. However, the underlying super-skill that is vital if you are to become an effective human being is learning how and when to keep silent.

To truly connect with other people you must learn how to pause, keep silent and listen. This means fully understanding the rule that my form teacher told me so many times, so long ago, that...

Silence is Golden!

If you would like to discover more about how you too can use silence to become a better public speaker, negotiator or leader, then please contact me on the mail address below.

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