The intentional use of silence at work

By: Chris Marcell Murchison

Sometimes it can be hard to find the words to describe how exactly we feel. The words may be deep inside, under layers of emotion and locked up in our bodies. Or the words are swirling around inside and need time to be processed. Or we may fear using the wrong words, saying something that will incite judgment or exact unintentional pain. Or words just seem inadequate… This year, following the highly covered police shootings, and now following the presidential election, I’ve heard many usually articulate friends and colleagues struggle with their words.

I had many colleagues struggle with how to talk about the police shootings. They struggled with what to say so many of them chose to say nothing. And post-election, I have had my own struggles, particularly when it comes to engaging with family members. The correspondence or conversations feel heavy and fraught. I fear speaking and also fear what I will hear.

Intentionally using silence can be a useful first step in coming to terms with our own feelings during difficult times. “Alone in silence, we create space to listen to our emotions, to hear our inner dialogue, and hopefully find some truth. Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses, to our selves,“ writes poet Gunilla Norris. Silence helps us to locate ourselves and hopefully from there discover the courage to speak and to listen.

As we gather together at work, we often find ourselves facing colleagues who hold beliefs we don’t comprehend. We fear saying the wrong thing, fear what we will hear or worry about how to respond when we, or they, get triggered. What can one do with this awkwardness? Silence offers an unusual solution here as well.

You might consider intentionally using silence in these ways at the office:

  • Start your next meeting with a moment of silence. Beginning in this way can set an intention for slowing down and offers the chance to invite others to pay attention to each other in a different way.
  • Pause before reacting to others, particularly if you feel hooked. Pausing creates the space for you to feel your own reaction and the opportunity to listen to others. You may even ask for a time out for some silent space as a way of self-care or compassion.
  • Experiment with sitting together in silence. Present a question, dilemma or hope to your team and ask the group to sit in silence and reflect quietly for 5-10 minutes. You can end the silence with some discussion if you like, but encourage people to speak only if they can improve upon the silence (an old Quaker saying).

Reflecting on collective silence, Gunilla Norris writes, “Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act. When we can stand aside from the usual and perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen. Our lives align with deeper values and the lives of others are touched and influenced.” Sitting together, in the absence of words allows undercover emotions to surface and creates the opportunity for greater connection and compassion in the office which is much needed in times like these.

Words are powerful, but in our word-heavy world, silence may in fact be even more impactful.

Editor’s note: This reflection was originally posted on Culture LABx and was inspired by an OnBeing blog by Parker Palmer.

Chris Murchison is a passionate advocate for positive workplace cultures. In his broad career spanning the higher education, for-profit and not-for-profit fields he has focused his energy on developing creative means to building community at work and practices that support an employee experience of deep respect, connection, joy, and generative learning. He is the former VP of Staff Development and Culture at HopeLab and a Visiting Leader at the Center for Positive Organizations.