Listen to Learn: My Week in Silence

I had a fascinating experience which resulted from a terrible cold, and completely lost my voice for a week.  It was surprisingly unsettling. I wasn’t able to participate in discussions at work, or defend any recent decisions vocally, and I was grateful that I had no immediate needs to shout for help. Even when I coughed, no sounds came out.

As luck would have it, I had chosen the month of October to begin a mindfulness practice of setting a daily intention each morning.  The day before I lost my voice, I chose “listen to learn” as my intention.  Well universe, you got me!  Did I ever listen that week.

This is what I learned, and strive to carry with me:

The challenge behind active listening is listening more than you speak.  As an HR professional, supervisor and coach, I am expected to listen and respond, providing advice.  When I listen, I’m trying to figure out what’s happened, understand my role/obligations in the situation, and suggest a course of action.  But I learned that rather than providing the space for someone to tell me their whole story, my natural instinct is to gain an understanding through probing questions.  The problem is that any interruption can disrupt your train of thought.  Probing questions have their value, but asking one clear question vs 3 conversation questions is powerful as well.

Body language was vital when I couldn’t speak.  It was fascinating to realize how the raising of my eyebrows or shifting of my weight would cause clients or staff to pause, await my reaction and then continue telling their story.  This meant that I could inadvertently disrupt someone’s train of thought without saying anything.  That was amazing to witness.

Some messages can wait.  Read that sentence again.  The magic comes from deciding which ones can wait, and which ones you’re avoiding.  I’m expected to lead meetings, train staff, conduct interviews; the list of verbal tasks seems endless.  During my silent week, I relied on emails, printed signs, written notes, text messages and sometimes forced whispers to trusted colleagues who could deliver messages on my behalf.

There were some messages that I couldn’t delegate, and I would save my voice for those moments.  Imagine what it’s like to have no voice, where the best-case scenario would allow you to deliver one spoken and understood statement.  Consider your workday: if the next message you’re planning to deliver happens to be the only one you can give, would it bring value to your team? If not, reconsider the delivery method, and your intention.  Perhaps the value in your presence is to receive a message and respond later, if at all.

Silence inspires reflection; discussion inspires action.  Although I’m a task-oriented person, I love sitting in a quiet space, reflecting on what’s happened, and planning my next move.  During my silent week at work, I was forced to listen and observe staff in silence, and it was a reminder that I supervise a number of introverts.  Of course, I’ve always known that, but the reminder was as blatant as my silence.  Staff who don’t speak openly and frequently during meetings are neither disengaged nor confused; sometimes they’re processing the information prior to providing a response or opinion. 

Being forced into silence meant that I could neither lead discussions, defend staff, nor provide immediate input to my team.  I was made to receive information, reflect upon it, draw conclusions within my head, and only have conversations with myself.  It was challenging at first, and then liberating, to be completely honest.  I enjoy working with leaders so that I can observe their leadership styles; I like seeing leaders respond to challenging situations and reflect on whether I would have responded the same way.  To be silent means having 100% of your time dedicated to reflection and deliberation within yourself.  Rather than share your immediate thoughts with a colleague, you enter this private world where only you know what you would have said and done.

We’ve all worked with co-workers who take over situations (with or without solicitation) because of their personality.  Is that always what we want?  How does it feel when a colleague has intention to support you, and speaks out of turn?  How do you respond when staff follow the direction of a colleague, even when their direction contradicts your prescribed plan?

Be silent on your reflection, but be open to the conversation, and have a great week!