By Cathy Salit
“Phillip, my colleague here, says that because of the five minutes we just spent talking together, I now know more about him than anyone else in the company. That’s amazing.”
I couldn’t agree more. Phillip and his colleague had just done an exercise that is in fact called Amazing Silence, along with about 75 other global strategy marketing and communication professionals at a workshop I led recently.
What’s so amazing about silence, you may ask? (Silently, to yourself.) Let me explain.
In the Amazing Silence exercise, two people sit in chairs facing each other. They start by taking a few seconds to silently look each other directly in the eyes. Then one person begins by sharing something that’s important to him or her, perhaps that he or she wouldn’t normally share in a work context, in no more than one or two sentences, while maintaining direct eye contact. Before the other person responds, they are both instructed to sit for 10 to 15 seconds in total silence while continuing to hold that eye contact. Then the other person responds with a statement or a question, in one or two sentences. And again, before the other person responds, they both sit facing each other for another 10 to 15 seconds of eye contact in total silence. Back and forth they go like this for about three to four minutes.
In a world where human interaction is so often reduced to rapid transaction — either face to face or digitally — we at Performance of a Lifetime are always looking to help create opportunities for real human connections. Rapid transaction is fine for all kinds of things — sharing information, scheduling a meeting, making dinner plans. But it’s become our default way of interacting, and that’s a problem. There’s so much in business and life that just can’t be expressed or produced through that mode of communication. We all need to be reminded — and get the support we need — to learn and practice ways of talking and listening that allow for greater engagement, involvement, and connection.
After the exercise, several people spoke about the experience.
Phillip said he had talked with his partner in the exercise, Carlee, about his daughter, an avid soccer player who had recently suffered a serious concussion. Carlee said that at first, it was very hard to “keep quiet” when Philip told her this.
But she followed my instructions and didn’t say anything. For 15 whole seconds, they sat looking at each other in silence.
“A hundred things went through my mind at that point,” she said later. “I thought about how worried Phillip must be; about my own son on his football team; how Phillip must feel telling me this; what I should to say to him…”
When the 15 seconds had elapsed she said, “I’m so sorry that you’ve been walking around with this worry. I’m glad you told me, Philip. What’s your daughter’s name? How’s she doing through all this?”
They went back and forth this way. When it was over, they both marveled at how the very things that make them most uncomfortable — the eye contact, the silence, the topic of conversation — was what produced the most connection. It was amazing, this silence. Face to face with another person, the silence becomes much more than waiting, or counting down the seconds. It’s different from any conversation you’ve ever had at work, or perhaps anywhere else. You’re fully present with each other; you impact them and they impact you. It’s captivating, personal, honest, open.
Slowing down, allowing for silence, being totally focused on someone else creates a different kind of talking, a different kind of listening, and a different kind of relationship.
Mark Twain said “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation,” and he was way ahead of his time. Maybe we don’t have to get better at communication after all. But conversation? Now we’re talking.
So take a breath. Take a pause. Look at someone and let them see you. Let’s perform a new (and amazing) way to talk and listen to each other.
Cathy Rose Salit is a performer and the founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.