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Great speaking involves listening…to the silence

Connected speaking…involves three kinds of listening

I was reflecting recently on how we can build deep rapport with a person when we can’t see them – specifically when we’re speaking on the phone, which is something that we do quite a bit.

I realised that most of the calls where I felt deeply connected to the person I was speaking to had something in common and it was a quality of cultivating and listening to the silences. Taking time to allow the other’s words to settle, or to allow the words that I’d just said to settle and waiting to see what “wanted” to come next.

The first, and most obvious benefit to this is that when I do this it cures me of my tendency to interrupt. I become much more interested in what the other has to say than what I need to say and this has a dramatic effect on the way I listen and on the relationship. I am no longer thinking about my response when I’m listening, I’m just listening.

And this means when it comes to my turn to speak I’ve been really able to hear the other person – not just their words but the 90% of communication that is conveyed beyond the words themselves. And I’m able to respond in a way that is completely appropriate and in a way that meets them.

The second benefit is rather more subtle. Listening to the silences somehow shifts my attention beyond myself to the bigger picture. I start to notice the trees and clouds outside my window, the space seems to expand, “I” seem less important. This makes it much easier to see the conversation from a less personal place, and to see an overview. I find it much simpler to let go of strongly held points of view and to see it from the other’s perspective and even to see a much larger, more global perspective. This is both very relaxing, but also very powerful.

The third benefit is connected to the second, which is that the other person tends to get drawn into this bigger picture perspective. There is often at the same time a much deeper sense of personal connection, whilst at the same time the egoic personal aspects are somehow taken less seriously by both of us. This is immensely freeing and really conducive to building relationships and to solving problems. It’s a deeply creative space.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should start your telephone calls with 30 second silences – you’d probably really freak out whoever you’re speaking to! What I am suggesting is that you can allow slightly longer silences than you usually would and perhaps allow these to lengthen as the call progresses or as the situation seems to require.

And this principle certainly applies hugely when speaking in public. You can start your talk by spending 10 or 15 seconds making eye contact with the audience in silence, as you may have noticed that many of the best speakers do. You can take time as you speak to pause to allow your words to sink in and to wait to listen and see what really wants to be said next. You can let go of the idea of silence as something to be filled and allow it to be your ally. Trust me – it makes a huge difference.

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