Is silence golden?

“Speech is silver, silence is golden” is a proverb thought to originate in Arabic culture from as early as the ninth century.  As children we are taught this proverb – encouraging us to embrace silence.  In this article we consider different people’s perception of silence and its value in relation to mentoring.

Silence during conversations is normal, but if the silence is too long we can start to feel uncomfortable.  Researchers have found that English speakers rarely last longer than four seconds in silence; and there is rarely more than a fraction of a second of silence between speakers in a conversation. When this becomes longer, people start to feel uncomfortable or break the natural flow of conversation. Once the pause has lasted too long, people have an overwhelming need to just say something – and in some cases anything.

Social scientist, Ty Tashiro, explains in his book, ‘The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome’, that when we experience an unexpected silence, the same part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response kicks-in. Researchers trace this reaction back to our hunter-gatherer times when rejection from the community was incredibly dangerous. At a primal level, the uncertainty of silence feels like rejection, and the fear of rejection leads people to panic.

It is important to understand that discomfort with silence is natural and varies among individuals. It is also important to understand the power of silence:

  • The mentee feels listened to – when a mentor remains silent, they are demonstrating active listening. It demonstrates that the mentor is fully present and focused on the mentee’s words and emotions.  This encourages a sense of trust and openness in the mentoring relationship and helps the mentee feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.
  • Empowers the mentee – silence allows the mentee to take ownership of the conversation and gives them space to express themselves fully. This encourages self-reliance and builds their confidence in their own abilities to find solutions.
  • Encourages reflection – silence provides space for the mentee to reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, allowing them to process information and consider others’ perspectives.
  • Enables deeper insights – silence allows the mentee to think deeper, explore their feelings and not provide a knee-jerk response.

Here are some guidelines on using silence as a mentor:

  • Provide a supportive environment, letting the mentee know that silence allows the mentee space to think.
  • Listen actively without interrupting, maintaining eye contact, nodding, and using other non-verbal to show that you are engaged and interested in what they have to say.
  • Pause after open-ended questions, allowing the mentee time to think before they respond and resist the urge to fill the silence by rephrasing the question or even answering the question yourself.
  • Use silence to deepen reflection particularly when the mentee is sharing something sensitive or important.
  • Be patient – and don’t jump in immediately to fill the silence.

There is a fine balance in using silence in a positive way to help and support the mentee.  For the mentee to benefit from the silence, it should be used at the right moments and if it’s not working for the mentee or indeed you, as the mentor, then don’t force its use.  Key to this is watching the mentee’s body language.  If they appear really uncomfortable with the silence, gently intervene with a supportive comment or by asking a further question to help move the conversation forward.

Using silence as part of the mentoring armory takes confidence on the part of the mentor and practice.  If it doesn’t appear to be having a positive impact in one session, don’t worry – everyone’s tolerance for silence is different – and can be different on different days, in different circumstances and when discussing different topics.  Do not be defeated, just try again in the next session.