Networking through the silence of neutrality
August 16, 2009
When things are utterly quiet. When you truly hear the silence, it can be one of the most peaceful and tranquil moments. Quieting the relentless noise in our minds, averting the cacophony of messages that attack us everyday, and letting our minds go blank are the most illuminating moments for me. Some call this meditation. Others name it reflection and introspection. Whatever the label it is a source of energy to me.
Some of you know I hosted a live weekly radio program for 10 years at KPCC here in LA. One of the things you learn in radio is dead air is deadly. Silence is a taboo. Makes perfect sense for the broadcasting medium. Listeners are there to be engaged, and silence, while a potentially powerful, is fatal in radio. Some people translate this idea into the way they talk and communicate. They don't listen and their mouth motors away. There is this nervous need or assertive assumption that they have to fill the space. Even, if they do not know what they are talking about the words keep coming as if their mouths will catch up with their ideas--always a dangerous move. The resulting monologue may be more fatal than silence, because your audience's attention span shrinks, especially when the onslaught is a rambling wreck.
Been interviewing people for lots of jobs. And the Gong Show of having the vaudeville acts come in to audition is always fascinating. You remember the show where Chuck Barris would strike the gong to mercifully dismiss the untalented contestant (sometimes I wish I had a gong!). In this job-interview radio show like environment, I serve as the host and ask a few questions and then see what happens. Some candidates just blather on wandering around the planet to see if some of the random words and thoughts they express will return to the continent where the question resides. I know nerves play into it. But if you are semi-prepared AND you are listening then this fire hose approach to watering the daisies could be avoided. The most entertaining part is that they are not even listening to themselves and not knowing they have digressed, they never ask me, "Did that answer your question?" I rarely follow-up with questions if I have to pick through the pile of arbitrariness. Not worth the time. So I ask my next question to see if the brain and the mouth of the candidate sync up. If not, I ask if they have questions. About 50% of the time this is a perplexing question. Hard to believe that candidates have no questions. And that's when one of the last finishing nails goes into their shiny coffins.
Back on silence. When you make a habit of choosing silence in networking or meeting settings, you can be labeled shy but even arrogant or ignorant. Shyness evaporates as an excuse after people get to know you. Then silence can be interpreted in pretty damaging ways to your rep and brand. When you do not speak, your silence can communicate volumes.
Here's what Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow says:
"Silence is associated with many virtues: modesty, respect for others, prudence, decorum. Thanks to deeply ingrained rules of etiquette, people silence themselves to avoid embarrassment, confrontation, and other perceived dangers. There's an old saying that sums up the virtues of silence: "Better to be quiet and thought a fool than to talk and be known as one." The social virtues of silence are reinforced by our survival instincts. Many organizations send the message—verbally or non verbally—that falling into line is the safest way to hold on to our jobs and further our careers. The need for quiet submission is exaggerated by today's difficult economy, where millions of people have lost their jobs and many more worry that they might. A Dilbert cartoon poignantly expresses how pointless—and perilous—many people feel it is to speak out. Dilbert, the everyman underling, recognizes that a senior executive is making a poor decision. "Shouldn't we tell her?" he asks his boss, who laughs cynically. "Yes," the boss replies. "Let's end our careers by challenging a decision that won't change. That's a great idea."
Couple of days ago a former of colleague made a confession to me, "I regret to this day that I did not speak up. (3 years ago) If I did our employer could have averted that disaster."
Yes silence is safe. Not rocking the boat can assure smoother sailing but somebody better say something about the icebergs. In times like these, adding value to your jobs, doing more than we would usually do, is better job insurance than sheer neutrality.
“Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality”
John F. Kennedy
In my opinion, choosing what I call the stealth syndrome as a career strategy, where you silently keep your head down and stay productive, will relegate you to anonymity. And when push comes to shove, no one remembers you and what you look like.
Enjoy the silences to calm your mind and energize your action orientation towards your goals. But pay attention, listen to what is being said, and contribute your ideas to the conversation. That's the best way to avoid the labels of ignorance, arrogance, or irrelevance.
Thanks for reading. John