In “The Communication Hierarchy,” we learned the benefits of communicating face-to-face, or at least on the phone, about important subjects, especially those that might be emotionally charged. You may have wondered why I remained silent about silence, the lowest level of communication in the hierarchy. That wasn’t because silence is unimportant, but on the contrary, because it deserves an entire blog article of its own.

Silence can be the best or the worst form of communication, depending on the circumstances and what you ultimately wish to achieve. During a conversation, when you don’t know what to say, you wish to give yourself or the other person time to think, or you want to draw the other person out, silence is brainy. Many virtues and uses of silence are described in Bridges to Consensus, most notably on pp. 136-140.

But what about the situation where someone has tried to communicate with you, perhaps several times, and you put off replying because you dread discussing the subject matter? In” The Communication Hierarchy,” we saw that communicating in writing for fear of the emotions that might arise in a face-to-face or telephone conversation can make matters even worse.

Going silent when a person has written to you or left phone messages increases these problems exponentially. That is, it increases the problems if you may want or need to deal with that person in the future.

First, let’s look at the situations in which your silence is temporary. Since beginning this article, I have worked with a client who was unhappy with a contractor who had not been returning his calls. I can well imagine what was going through that contractor’s mind. She was pretty sure she knew why my client had been calling. She had not completed his project. She didn’t want to tell him that. He might become angry or fire her. She did intend to do the work and planned to return his call when she had good news to report.

If my guess is right, and I’m pretty sure it is, postponing that phone call made my client much angrier then he would have been if the contractor had phoned back and honestly explained the situation. In fact, my client told me that it was really the failure to communicate, being left hanging and not knowing what to expect, that bothered him more than the fact that the work had not been completed. He doubted that he would ever hire this contractor again or recommend her to others.

This contractor was not an attorney, but some of my attorney acquaintances have told me that, in their continuing education classes, they learn that the single biggest reason for clients to file ethical grievances or malpractice suits is failure of the attorney in question to communicate with the client.

Now let’s turn to the situation in which someone’s silence is permanent. They do not intend to get back to the other person at all. As my readers know, my business motto is, “Get what you need from others, while building bridges, not burning them.” Permanent, or extremely long-term, silence can burn a bridge.

Now, I hasten to add that, in some cases, you may wish to burn a bridge. Perhaps the person who has been trying to reach you is a pesky salesperson who won’t take “no” for an answer. Or you might have become friendly with someone who, upon better acquaintance, turned out to be toxic for you; he’s intractably abusive or seems to have an incurable personality disorder. In such situations, it is your specific intent to burn the bridge. You sincerely hope that you never need to see or speak to this person again. And if you should happen to run into him, you hope he will ignore you.

However, there are other times when you wish to end or dramatically change a relationship, and like the person who e-mails rather than phoning about bad news, you just can’t summon the guts to tell the person the truth.

Let’s say Marie not only works for Teresa, but they have become rather friendly. Now Marie finds a better job. But all Teresa knows is that, one not so fine day, Marie simply doesn’t show up for work.

Worried, Teresa tries to phone Marie, who doesn’t answer, so Teresa leaves a voice message. When she receives no reply, Teresa becomes even more worried. Marie always returns calls, so she must be very sick, or injured, maybe even dead. Or perhaps there has been some other terrible tragedy in her family.

More time passes, and Teresa begins to think that, if something really awful had happened, someone would have contacted her by now. So Teresa begins to question herself. Did she say or do something to offend Marie? She goes back over all of their recent dealings trying to figure out what she might have done wrong. But she can’t think of anything so bad as to cause Marie to completely shun her.

Finally, Teresa decides to drive over to Marie’s home to see what she can see. And what she sees is Marie carrying a briefcase into the front door while her spouse and child happily play catch in the front yard.

From Marie’s point of view, she went silent because she could not bear to tell Teresa she had found a better job. That would have been just too cruel, rejecting Teresa overtly. It would have hurt Teresa terribly. And if Theresa shared this view, she would have agreed, even considered Marie’s approach the most polite and respectful in the circumstances.

But Teresa’s repeated attempts to contact Marie show that she did not share that view. How does Teresa feel when she finally sees Marie alive, well, and apparently employed?

At the very least, Teresa is frustrated. Aside from the issue of an employee giving notice, and even if Teresa has fairly thick skin, she thinks, If I’m doing something to drive employees away, or not offering something other employers offer, tell me about it. How else can I learn something from this?

If Teresa is more sensitive, she feels hurt, angry and humiliated. She feels like a fool for having worried so much about Marie and for questioning herself about an offense she never committed, when in fact, Marie was the one whose behavior was hurtful.

Sure, if Marie had told Teresa she was moving on to a better job, Teresa might have been put out. Or she might have realized the limitations of the employment she could offer Marie, and therefore, wished her well. But either way, Teresa now feels more negatively than if Marie had simply explained the situation. Maria’s silence seems disrespectful, inconsiderate, or even rude.

In this situation, Marie’s intent was not to burn a bridge, but rather, to avoid an awkward and mutually painful conversation. But she has burned a bridge, a bridge she might wish she could reconstruct if her new job doesn’t work out so well.

In some cultures, words that might suggest rejection seem too harsh to utter. In these cultures, everyone knows the same drill. If someone goes silent, you know she wants to end the relationship and is trying to do it in what your mutual culture tell you is a polite and respectful manner. So, if you are certain that you and the other person share such a culture, silence may be brainy. If not, it can be beastly.

Culture is not the only factor that accounts for different points of view on this subject. Sometimes, the person’s personality or something that happened to them in the past is at work. Remember the Paul Simon song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”? Even among people of the same nationality, some think the kindest of the fifty ways is to “slip out the back, Jack,” like Marie slipped away from her employer, while others feel that the kinder, more respectful, way is to be honest about the fact that the relationship is over.

In the U.S., justifications for going silent can range from I don’t want to talk about it because then we’ll end up arguing to I can’t explain because it could mean legal trouble. But one thing you can be sure of, if your reason for going silent is because you dread what the other person will think if you explain yourself, the more likely result is that he imagines something worse than your actual reason.

Your motive for silence may feel like kindness, but the person who is suddenly, inexplicably shut out may wonder, for example, why an extended job interview process that seemed to be going very well suddenly stopped short, and now no one in the company will return his calls or messages. Could the reason be legal? Does that mean I’m in some kind of trouble?

Maybe your reason was legal or policy driven. For example, hiring this man would put your department over the company limit for employees who graduated from the same university. But the candidate may wonder: Did I handle the interview poorly? Did another candidate look better? How can I learn and improve if I don’t know what went wrong? He might even wonder whether the interviewer heard some ugly rumor about him? How can I dispel a false rumor if I can’t even find out what the rumor is? All this wondering and worrying when there is nothing he needs to learn. He was simply a victim of circumstance.

Whatever the real reason for your silence, people often tend to imagine something worse. However, for someone who wishes to learn from the situation, silence, no matter how frustrating, is preferable to giving him a false explanation to spare his feelings.

None of this is to say that you should ignore legal advice, company policy, your own culture, or any other reason for considering the use of silence en lieu of a difficult conversation. Rather, make sure you are clear on your reasons and how well silence will address your true interests.

  • Do you really just mean to be kind, or in your heart of hearts, are you feeling a little chicken?
  • If your reasons are legal or matters of policy, ask your attorney or policy maker what are the legal risks or the reasons behind the policy. Then, discuss with her how those reasons compare with the downsides of burning a bridge. Is there some third alternative that would satisfy the attorney or policy maker’s concerns without burning the bridge?
  • Does your culture, your very sense of politeness or right and wrong, forbid giving the one you mean to reject an honest explanation? How can you find out about the other person’s cultural and temperamental inclinations in such matters? If you believe your respective norms may differ, make an educated decision whether you have a greater interest in silently staying comfortable in your own skin, on the one hand, or minimizing the other person’s distress by explaining, on the other hand. I don’t mean to suggest which you should choose, only that your decision be informed and well thought out.

In short, only you can decide when silence is brainy and when it’s beastly in a given situation. My advice is simply that you make a mindful decision, rather than acting on autopilot.

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