I’m working alone today, flying solo. I cut this card from the Stop Doing Dumb Things deck and I’m enjoying thinking about and practicing, silence. As someone with talkative tendencies, I’m a little outside my comfort zone.

Awkward Silence

In the corporate world you often hear the words ‘any questions?’ at the end of a talk or presentation. Occasionally the words get asked along the way, but overwhelmingly they come at the end of the bombardment, sorry, I mean presentation. And often what follows is this:


Any Questions + Tumbleweed = Awkward Silence.

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Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Sometimes you find yourself sitting in a meeting and there’s no silence. Far from it. Sometimes everyone has an opinion and they’re falling over themselves to voice it. No one is really listening, everyone is too busy thinking about the smart, witty, insightful thing they are about to say.

In these conditions, just as nature abhors a vacuum so the workplace abhors silence.

I'm not listening

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Golden Silence

This seems to me the rarest variety of silence, hence its name I guess. Golden silence is wonderful quiet time, spent alone or together, when no one feels in any rush to fill the gap. It’s not awkward because there’s no pressure to conform to any expectations. Time to think, time to be.

Golden Silence

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The Opposite of Honesty…

You get to the end of the meeting, the end of the presentation, the end of the webinar.

The person in charge says:

Then this happens:


Everyone returns to their desks. The person in charge thinks ‘I have everyone’s agreement’. Everyone else thinks ‘Screw that – I’m going back to doing what I’ve always done’.

If your ‘any questions?’ is a tumbleweed moment, please stop and think for a minute. Have you bored everyone to sleep? Have you confused everyone? Is it fear that is preventing people from having the conversation? If your ‘any questions?’ is a tumble weed moment, take a small risk, and a little time to gently exhaust the possibilities for the silence. Maybe – just maybe – that tumbleweed reaction means you’ve got total, unequivocal, rock solid backing. Maybe…

And typically…

The opposite of honesty…is silence.

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It’s The Waiting That Kills You

Like a lot of folk I meet plenty of interesting people, talk and share ideas, make proposals, follow up enquiries. It’s part of what is commonly referred to as looking for work, or looking for purpose, or maybe even looking to learn. I then spend time following these things up, Sometimes a conclusion is reached, and often, at some point the dialogue just fizzles out. Calls aren’t returned, emails aren’t responded to.

I’m not talking here about speculative approaches – ones where I think I might have spotted an opportunity and take a punt. On the rare occasion I take that kind of approach – I do so with no expectation of response. No – what I’m talking about is situations where I’ve been asked to submit something to someone else for consideration, feedback, follow up conversations and so on. I’m not the only one who experiences this – am I? Does this happen to you too?

People’s plans change all the time, mine included. I understand that, and when my plans change, I let people know. It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? Putting the simple lack of courtesy to one side, this course of action burns energy and wastes the time of the person following up. I read a very interesting piece by Alexandra Samuel on the Harvard Business Review where she talks about new opportunities which come our way and the need to think carefully about which to engage with, and which to say no to. Alexandra’s advice is quite simple, we need to learn to say no, politely and effectively.

What really hit me as I read the post, is that not saying no burdens the recipient of the proposal or enquiry too. Perhaps not as much as the person doing the following up, but the recipient still has to read the approach, ignore the approach, think about not returning that call. This stuff takes time and effort and consumes energy. We can all do without this so I think it’s time to get over the anxiety of delivering so called bad news, and as Alexandra Samuel recommends, just learn to say no. Politely and effectively.

I wrote this post in 2010. At the time I called it ‘Yes or no, but not nothing’. I’ve updated and retitled it now, in January 2016. Six years since writing this remains one of the biggest challenges I face. With help – I’ve got better at parking these stalled conversations, and even so – I’d much rather they were dealt with, rather than left to hang around on the edges of my mind, like unwelcome guests at a party. If this is something you experience and you have a useful way of dealing with it – I’d love to hear from you please.

I can live with the no far easier than the silence. A no, or even a not now, helps me plan, so let’s make 2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015/2016 the year of saying yes, or no, but not nothing. Thank you.