Sometimes the most active kind of communication means not saying a word.
Different from avoidance and passivity, when you actively choose not to say something you can create the space for more generative communication down the road.
1. As a supervisor: Your direct report wants you to intervene in a complicated matter. Instead of getting down in the weeds with them, you offer them a knowing look that communicates, ‘You got this, and I am here to help you work it through.’ Through that simple act, you communicate your presence and your trust in their abilities.
2. As a team player: You are in a meeting and everything has been said, just not everyone has said it (that’s a paraphrase from Israeli statesman, Abba Eben.) Instead of inserting yourself and not adding anything valuable, you remain quiet. Your colleagues will be all to happy that you saved them time.
3. As a colleague: You have one co-worker who gets on your nerves. You have so much feedback you would want to give them! Instead, you choose not to intervene in their work life because you know it will breed a negative exchange. When your co-worker is not flooded with negative feedback, s/he will be freed up to contribute the way they know how.
None of these situations is simple. It is so much easier to be in the weeds, speak up at a meeting so that you too are noticed, and make a side comment to a colleague who annoys you.
Actively practicing restraint as a communication skill will help you as you grow as a supervisor, team player, and colleague.
How do we cultivate our internal disposition for restraint?
1. Create space in your day for quiet - our lives are filled with interruptions and communication noise 24/7 (radio, news cycles, social media). Actively create space to turn down the volume and create pockets of quiet in your day-to-day to help calm down your nervous system and give you a more measured outlook. On your way to or from work, for example, instead of immediately popping on a podcast, experience your commute in quiet.
2. Create space in yourself to respond with generosity - so many times when we want to ‘jump in’ and say something, we do so from a reactive place. We feel triggered. Our minds know that this is not productive, but our fingers continue to type out a quick response, or we insert ourselves into a conversation when we know that sometimes things are better left unsaid. Before you respond to a situation, create space within yourself (a breath or two) and ask yourself, “what do I really want to say here? How can I phrase it so that it is helpful and can lead to something productive?” And speak from that place.
There is a Hebrew poem called “L’Hashir” or “To Remain” by Shlomo Tanai and it inspires me every time I consider the importance of quiet. It begins: “Don’t say everything, even the tree only speaks of trunks and leaves, and the roots are left in the dark…” What is true for nature is also true of our human nature. Let’s give quiet more space in the coming weeks, and see how the quality of our communication becomes enriched.