The Power of Silence, Part 1

NOTE: This post is an excerpt from a presentation I delivered at the Illumin8 AZ 8/8/2017 event.

Silence can be described in many ways: from awkward and uncomfortable to peaceful and contemplative. It can be used as a tool for listening or for quietly judging people. Silence is powerful because it can make us feel many different emotions.

So, what is silence? It might sound silly to ask such a simple question, but we might otherwise be taking silence for granted. Technically, silence is "the absence of sound." What makes it powerful is that it leaves us alone with our thoughts. What can be so bad about that?

Listening to and understanding our thoughts through extended times of silence can change our beliefs about ourselves and that can be uncomfortable. We like to believe that our thoughts are orderly and connected, but they rarely are. We can prove this to ourselves if we take the time to listen to our thoughts in silence.

This type of silent listening is a practice called mindfulness, which is commonly defined as "awareness of present experience with acceptance." Mindful meditation is scientifically proven to strengthen parts of the brain that lead to happiness and contentment. If you want to know more, then I highly recommend Ron Siegel's "The Science of Mindfulness" audio series as a starter.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness, which is another one of those words we take for granted. To be mindless is to act without thinking. Acting without thinking does sometimes originate from expert knowledge. Most of the time, however, our actions are taken without intention.

Awareness is about slowing down and paying attention. Daniel Kahneman says "you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail." We cannot "pay" attention to our thoughts in silence unless we stop and ignore whatever else is happening around us.

Acceptance is having psychological flexibility. We understand the world using rules and beliefs we've formed through life experience. When an event violates those rules and beliefs, it causes cognitive dissonance and great emotional and mental discomfort. Psychological flexibility allows us to accept outrageous events without the need to be outraged.

Silence can help us to develop awareness and acceptance within ourselves and others. Comfort with silence means comfort with ourselves. Practicing silence leads us to value silence and not run from it or have a negative experience with it in conversation. I believe it is our inexperience with silence that makes us avoid it as much as possible.

Next time you experience an awkward or uncomfortable silence, use it as a reminder that you need some practice. If you need some methods or silence-related activities, reach out in the comments.

Want Arguments or Outcomes?

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.
— Anthony Damasio, Descartes' Error

It's hard not to get emotional in meetings. We can be interrupted, overruled, judged, outsmarted, muted, invited, rescheduled, replaced, uncredited, unrecognized, cancelled, acknowledged, ignored, celebrated, blamed, and more. After years and years of meetings, I decided to change my approach to them and the results have been liberating.

My change started with Damasio's quote above stating that people are not thinkers, but rather feelers with the capacity to think. To test his hypothesis in meetings at work, I started emotionally distancing myself when picking up on threats to stability and candor in the room. In other words, I shifted my role from "participant" in a meeting to "observing participant."

An Observing Participant

As an observing participant, I still cared about the results of a meeting, but became equally interested in observed behaviors. During verbal interruptions, there were noticeable changes in behavior, language/word choice, volume/tone of voice, and the physical posture of both the interruptor and interruptee. I noticed same during moments of correction (whether deserved, uninvited, or appreciated), recognition, and authoritative overruling. In the language of Crucial Conversations, I watched for "violent contributions" to the "shared pool of meaning."

Here's what I noticed: many people are more interested in argument than outcomes. Knowing that I have personally interrupted, overruled, judged, made great efforts to outsmart, muted, etc. others in meetings, I knew I needed to change my own behaviors. (Pro tip: Deciding to change lets you skip the brutal step of noting your own behaviors.)

Changing My Behaviors

Upon being interrupted, I shut my mouth and let the other person finish. It provided a great opportunity to ask myself whether I was taking the meeting off track. Rather than taking offense, I could see what the interruptor had to say and whether it had merit or was emotionally charged.

To prevent myself from interrupting others, I counted to 3 before speaking when in the room. When on the phone, I put my phone on mute and kept the phone locked and at an arm's length so I would have to unlock it and hit unmute before I could speak.

When judging others, I asked myself why I had a problem with someone else's behaviors. It's very rare to be in a meeting where I literally have no teammates, so why would I judge anyone in a meeting with me? It's my problem, not theirs. Meetings are forums for dialogue and decisions, not argument and winning.

When disagreeing with others, I asked questions to clarify my understanding. It was so easy to believe I was the only person with the right answer, especially in emotionally-vulnerable meeting moments. Usually, just a few minutes of keeping my mouth shut led to other people coming around to ideas that were usually better than the half-formed thing I had in my head.

Instead of providing input, I asked everyone else to provide input. More often than not, this made everyone feel included and someone would eventually ask me for my own input. This gave me an opportunity to be the last person in the room to speak and assess whether I had anything new to offer that hadn't already been said. I also could use that time to offer support to ideas already mentioned by others.

Instead of focusing on my personal opinions/objectives, I focused on outcomes. Outcomes matter more than the details that literally have no impact on a meeting, especially details relating to work I would personally not be doing. Most of the time I had an opinion, it was about some minor detail and not the big picture, anyway.

There are a lot of other personal behaviors I had to outsmart, but I'll save some time and skip to the results.

Results

Tracking and preventing my own unhealthy professional behaviors helped me understand how poorly I often behaved in meetings. It was easy to think everyone else was the problem until I had my own personal scorecard. The following are some of the results of the behavior changes mentioned above.

As an observing participant, I became more concerned with the group of us getting along well and less concerned with getting my way. Everyone appeared happier or more satisfied at the end of the meeting, but that's purely speculative.

Shutting my mouth saved me embarrassment. It turns out that I'm not quite the expert I believed I was. Shutting up helped me to see the expertise in others.

Asking questions made others feel good and gave me an opportunity to see them shine. It felt so much better to be inclusive than to be right.

Observing behaviors gave me a list of behaviors to avoid: 

  • Speaking louder than others and steamrolling
  • Repetitive stuttering of the first word of a sentence
  • Not asking questions or including others
  • Getting offended at unexpected approaches
  • Talking too long or too often

Thoughts?

What are some poor behaviors you've noticed in meetings and how do you think you can counter them in your own behaviors? Or, do you need help with this stuff? Let us know!

"Your Feelings Are Wrong"

"Look straight ahead," Alexander Technique instructor Jim Coates said to me in November 2015.

"I am," I responded.

"No you're not."

"I'm not?"

"Your chin and nose are pointing above the horizon. They should be pointing straight ahead." Jim adjusted the position of my head on my neck so my head would be facing straight ahead.

"It feels like my chin is pushing my throat in."

"Well, you can't trust your feelings. Your feelings are wrong. You've trained yourself to believe what's wrong is right. Your head ain't straight, man."

I met Jim via an invitation from Zach Ferres at Coplex, which is a few buildings away from my full-time job at meltmedia in Tempe, AZ. Zach had found Alexander Technique to be life-changing, as had I thanks to a music instruction course where AT was demonstrated.

I'll never forget the conversation Jim and I had that day. While I may not recall it word-for-word, what's written above is pretty close.

Apparently, over 33 years I'd taught myself to lean my skull backward a few degrees. This might have been due to wearing glasses or some sort of vain attempt to conceal the appearance of a second chin. I nevertheless grew to believe that "straight ahead" was actually "a few degrees above the horizon."

Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at—and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength.
— Peter Drucker, "Managing Oneself"

What Jim ultimately taught me is that I can't truly trust my own feelings because my feelings may be provably wrong. Even something as simple as objectively understanding the position of my head on my neck was beyond me. It was astounding to realize that "straight ahead" wasn't straight ahead.

If I literally didn't have my head on straight, what else might I be misbelieving or misunderstanding? My interaction with Jim helped me to understand that even in a program like Pause, which I'd been writing for almost a year at that point, I was just as much a participant as anyone else who might go through it.

It's easy to listen to the ego and say, "I'm writing a professional development program," when the reality was that it was re-writing me.

Jim's statements that my "feelings are wrong" and that I can't trust them led to an incredible realization and a wonderful moment of correction. I'm grateful to Zach for connecting me with Jim that day and I'm grateful to Jim for setting my head on straight.