People who use silence as a defense mechanism actually want to be heard. They just need a little help.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to look at a person’s body language and know he or she is too angry to talk. Throw them a lifeline. Recognize their anger and then offer a guess as to the cause. Even if you’re wrong, your angry friend or co-worker will correct you, giving you the opportunity to actively listen, which means you state back in your own words what you understand the person is saying.
Silence with no signs of anger? Most likely, the person cannot articulate their feelings. Say you understand. This often encourages people to try to explain their silence. Once the explanation begins, you can again actively listen.
In both cases, active listening could very well lead to a conversation, which, by definition, eliminates silence.
—Betsy MacCarthy Westendorf ’66
A resident of Newburyport, Mass., Westendorf is a corporate trainer and executive coach at Westendorf and Associates (www.TheOfficeHours.com).