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The world is getting louder. There is enough noise to make silence uncomfortable, and it affects our interactions. In conversation, loudness is perceived as powerful. In meetings, opinions are broadcast at high volumes. But there is a strong case for staying quiet, especially at work, and especially for business leaders looking to motivate teams or negotiate difficult deals.
Entrepreneurs often assume their silence will be taken for indecisiveness. To understand the benefits of being quiet, it’s helpful to unpack the minds of quiet people, including misperceptions.
Related: Making The Case For ‘Silent Leadership’
Quiet people are not always introverts
Introverts are having a moment, with advocates like Susan Cain calling introversion a superpower, making the case that observers can better assess problems and digest information. Introversion and extroversion are personality types that remain fairly consistent throughout our lives. Though introverts focus more on silent contemplation, anyone can be quiet. Most of us manage to stay silent when circumstances call for observation more than outward reactions — in presentations or movie theatres, for instance.
Unlike introversion, quietness is context-dependent, which means it can be used as a tactic.
Silence is not the absence of thought
During meetings that call for brainstorming, it’s easy to assume that quiet people are just taking up space. The myth that links silence to ineptness is shifting as awareness grows around power dynamics, diversity and inclusion, and psychological safety. When barriers prevent people from speaking, they must be addressed. Additionally, quiet people might need more time. Observers might be internal processors.
We absorb information in accordance with our communication and learning styles. External processors speak through ideas as they come to mind. Thinking out loud helps them take in details and make decisions. Internal processors need to sit with all the data before saying anything.
Processing styles can also be context-dependent, so consider which style works best for you in any given scenario. You might take more time to digest complicated problems brought to you by direct reports, for instance, but prefer to be vocal and collaborative during strategy sessions with peers.
Related: 25 Ways to Lead, Inspire and Motivate Your Team to Greatness
You can become the strong, silent type
The quiet tactic is most helpful when your thoughts are emotionally nuanced. If you disagree with a colleague’s strategic direction, taking more time to percolate before briefing your team is a good idea. Compose yourself so you can appear outwardly positive when you discuss the changes.
Stay quiet at times when negotiations will only happen once, like key hiring decisions. Verbal offers are tempting if you get along with the interviewee; it’s often wise to wait until they’ve left to review qualifications from all the top candidates. Being quiet is also helpful when something upsets you, like a pitch that didn’t land as you expected or rejected requests for budget increases. Remember the old idiom, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Silence allows you to regroup before agreeing to anything prematurely.
Finally, stay quiet with your team. As a psychologist, I can vouch for this tactic, used often in classic psychoanalytic therapy. Most people fill uncomfortable silence, and whatever follows a pause is often vital. When leaders wait to speak or react, direct reports tend to blurt out what they are really thinking, add context to an earlier point or clarify something they have been replaying in their minds.
Uncomfortable silence is also part of the sales process. When you leave space after pitching, you get the customer’s perspective, reaction, and oftentimes, more details about their needs. This becomes data leveraged to close the sale.
Stay quiet as a tactic in your own work habits. Which scenarios call for listening more than talking?