George*, a managing director at a large financial services firm, had an uncanny ability to move a roomful of people to his perspective. What George said was not always popular, but he was a master persuader.
It wasn’t his title — he often swayed colleagues at the same hierarchical level. And it wasn’t their weakness — he worked with a highly competitive bunch. It wasn’t even his elegant and distinguished British accent — his British colleagues were persuaded right along with everyone else, and none of them had his track record of persuasion.
George had a different edge, which wasn’t immediately obvious to me because I was listening to what George said. His power was in what he didn’t say.
George was silent more than anyone else who spoke, and often, he spoke last.
I say “anyone else who spoke” because there are plenty of people who remain completely silent — they don’t say anything, ever — and they are not persuasive. For many people, silence equals absence. But George was not absently or passively silent. In fact, he was busier in his silence than anyone else was while speaking. He was listening.
It’s counterintuitive, but it turns out that listening is far more persuasive than speaking.
It is easy to fall into the habit of persuasion by argument. But arguing does not change minds — if anything, it makes people more intransigent. Silence is a greatly underestimated source of power. In silence, we can hear not only what is being said but also what is not being said. In silence, it can be easier to reach the truth.
There is almost always more substance below the surface of what people say than there is in their words. They have issues they are not willing to reveal. Agendas they won’t share. Opinions too unacceptable to make public.
We can hear all those things — and more — when we keep quiet. We can feel the substance behind the noise.
I could tell what George was doing, because when he decided to speak, he was able to articulate each person’s position. And, when he spoke about what they said, he looked at them in acknowledgement, and he linked what they had said to the larger outcome they were pursuing.
Here’s what’s interesting: Because it was clear that George had heard them, people did not argue with him. And, because he had heard them, his perspective was the wisest in the room.
This relates to another thing George consistently did that made him trustworthy and persuasive. He was always willing to learn something from others’ perspectives and to let them know when he was shifting his view as a result of theirs.
Because words can so often get in the way, silence can help you make connections. Try just listening, for once. It softens you both, and makes you more willing not only to keep listening, but to incorporate each other’s perspectives.
If you treat this silence thing as a game, or as a way to manipulate the views of others, it will backfire. Inevitably you will be discovered, and your betrayal will be felt more deeply. If people are lured into connection, only to feel manipulated, they may never trust you again.
You have to use silence with respect.
There are so many good reasons to be thoughtfully silent that it’s a wonder we don’t do it more often. We don’t because it’s uncomfortable. It requires that we listen to perspectives with which we may disagree and listen to people we may not like.
But that’s what teamwork — and leadership — calls us to do. To listen to others, to see them fully, and to help them connect their desires, perspectives, and interests with the larger outcome we all, ultimately, want to achieve.
There’s something else we offer, as persuasive leaders, when we are silent: space for others to step into. Lau Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher wrote: A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
When people contribute their own ideas, they inevitably work harder than if they are simply complying with our ideas. Silence, followed by a few well-chosen words, is our best bet at achieving this leadership ideal.
So, how do we do it, in practice? We all know how to be silent. The question is: can we withstand the pressure to speak.
Few resist it, which is why we seldom have silent moments in groups. But that, according to George, can be used to our advantage.
“When you ask a question into a group,” he told me, “think of it as a competition. If you answer your own question, you’ve lost. You’ll be answering your own questions all day and no one else will do the work. But wait in the silence — no matter how long — until someone in the group speaks. And they will then continue to do the work necessary to lead themselves.”
There it is, his secret: Let other people speak into the silence and listen quietly for the truth behind their words. Then acknowledge what you’ve heard (which is, most likely, more than has been said) and, once the others feel seen and heard, offer your view.
And when they all agree with you? That’s the power of silence.
*I changed George’s name to protect his privacy.
Article originally published at Harvard Business Review.