How to Handle Silence, the Worst Kind of Feedback

Last week I shared the problem of Alex, a marketing consultant who was left in the dark when Sam, a prospective client, didn’t call him back. My suggestion to Alex was to reach out to Sam once and then let it go.

In that situation Alex and Sam didn’t know each other well (they had met once). Everyone knows in a sales situation that there’s a strong chance he may not hear back from a prospect.

But what if Sam and Alex had done lots of work together? Maybe they’re colleagues. Or friends even. What if letting go is not simple but simply too hard, maybe even emotionally impossible? What if Alex can’t stop thinking about it?

First, you might wonder, what’s wrong with Alex that he can’t stop thinking about it? Grow up, right?

“Silence,” Alex later told me, “is the worst, most damaging kind of feedback.” Effective feedback is clear and specific. Silence is ambiguous and generic. It could mean anything. “We don’t know why the other person is silent,” Alex continued, “and we inevitably go straight to our biggest insecurities.”

Why do we go to our insecurities? Because we know that people tend to shy away from communicating negative messages. If someone hasn’t called us, we think to ourselves, it must be that she doesn’t want to communicate something negative to us. Or she simply wants us to stop bothering her and go away. Also, we figure, if the person wanted to work with us, it would be in her interest to let us know — she would have called.

So, when we don’t get a response from someone, we imagine one, and it sounds something like this: “Terrible job you did the other day. And, oh, by the way, I don’t like you very much.”

Which, of course, is not usually what the other person wants to communicate. But misunderstandings rarely happen in words, they happen in the gap between the words. And the longer the gap, the more room for misunderstanding.

Here’s what makes the problem difficult to ignore: it happens all the time between people who have to continue working together. A manager and an employee. An employee and an internal client. Two people from different departments working on a project together.

And here’s what makes the problem so pernicious: Uncertainty. We don’t know the other person thinks we did a bad job. We don’t know the other person doesn’t like us. And that keeps us wondering. That’s what makes silence so hard. Discomfort lies in uncertainty. If we knew, then we would deal with it and move on. But since we don’t, we wait, wonder, and stress.

So how should we deal with the uncertainty of silence when it would be inadvisable to (or we simply can’t) let go? Three steps:

    1. Acknowledge to yourself that you don’t know what the silence means. Resist the temptation to fill in the blank.


    1. Admit to the other person that you don’t know what the silence means. Ask him to fill in the blank.


  1. No matter what he says, act as if it’s the truth.

Most people don’t ask others what the silence means because they’re afraid it will make them look vulnerable. But the opposite is true. If you don’t have the conversation, then you end up doing things — like emailing every few days or leaving five messages — that makes you look even more vulnerable. And the truth is, it’s a sign of confidence to ask someone to be clear in his thinking. It shows you’re not afraid of the answer.

If you get an answer you don’t believe, pretend you believe it anyway. If you’re told she’s been busy and that’s the only reason, then ask her when would be a good time to pick up the conversation again.

And if you can’t get to step two because she doesn’t respond at all? After two unanswered emails or voice mails you should send one final one saying some version of: “I don’t mean to hound you — but I figured I’d reach out one more time. Please let me know if you are able to discuss this further. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you’re not interested.”

That final email usually gets a person’s attention. But if after all that she still doesn’t respond, it should be easier to let go because you know you’ve done all you can.

Whatever you do though, after sending that last message, don’t send “just one more.” Follow though on your word: assume the person is not interested.

And if you’re the other person, the one who gets all those messages, including that final one, and doesn’t respond? Consider communicating. If you don’t know what to communicate, it’s OK to say that, so the other person isn’t left floundering. Tell him you’ll get back to her when your time permits.

How can you be expected to remember to communicate with someone when there’s nothing to communicate? Here’s a trick: drive your communication by the person, not the information. I keep a list of every person with whom I have an open issue. And at least once a week I go through the list and if I haven’t connected with someone in a week or two, I send an email that takes me a few seconds to write that says, in effect, you’re still on my list.

Which reminds me, I have a couple of emails to send.