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Most people would argue that silence isn't communication. In fact, they'd probably say that it's just the opposite of communicating. But the truth is, depending on how it's used, silence can be a really good communication skill.
A common communication pattern in problem relationships is one partner talking too much and the other partner talking too little. So, is there really a place for silence in healthy relationships? Yes.
How Silence Can Be Used For Communication
It would be easy to assume that it's men who are too quiet and women who talk more than necessary, but that's not always the case. Sometimes these stereotypes are reversed.
We all can agree that too much of an imbalance between partners as to who does the talking is going to be a problem. Yet there is a place for silence among good communication skills. To begin to understand how, take a look at this social media post I wrote.
A well-known statistic is that 93% of communication is non-verbal. There's some dispute among experts as to the accuracy of that exact number. However, there is no dispute among researchers and communication experts that the majority of communication takes place in other forms than the words we speak.
Considering this fact, it begins to make some sense as to how silence could be a good communication skill, particularly since it's true that so much of our communication is non-verbal.
Here are a few other reasons why silence is good for communication:
- More than a few of us 'have to have' the last word or 'win' the conversation. This is a big problem in the communication between many couples. Silence is one way to stop ourselves from feeding this bad habit.
- Many of us tend to over explain things. One of the reasons for this is the belief that we need to get approval or acceptance from the other person before doing something (often there's not conscious awareness of this belief). We also tend to believe the more we explain the more likely we’ll convince the other person we’re right. So, the talking partner keeps talking (and talking) in the hope they will gain agreement or approval. This pattern can create an unhealthy relationship.
- Verbal communication can become abusive by some partners. One of the ways to de-escalate verbal abuse is to be silent. Now I'm not recommending silently accepting abuse (here are examples of what verbal abuse is like). However, I've worked with a lot of partners who fuel the verbal abuse from their partner with their 'attacks' back (Tired of Hearing "Sorry"? – read about how this is a common verbal abuser response).
The researcher who came up with the 93% of communication is non-verbal statistic is Dr. Albert Mehrabian. His studies found that 7% of a message is conveyed through words, 38% through vocal elements (tone, volume, etc.), and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.).
This is really important to be conscious of in this era of increasing digital communication. Texts and emails don’t allow for the non-verbal communication to come through. Nor does silence work well with these tools, because it’s more often seen as hostility or even ghosting. So, when it comes to communication within your relationship, face-to-face is always best.
Other Underused Communication Skills
Silence isn’t the only communication skill that's underused in relationships. Sadly, over time, may couples lose the ability to communicate with each other effectively at all. So, as you are working toward improving your communication, consider using these tools as well.
- Tone and facial expressions. After all, how many of us have heard, "It's not what you said, it's the way you said it" or "I saw you roll your eyes"? People underestimate how much they communicate just through tone and the look on their face. Being aware of this is key to ensuring you’re sending the right message.
- Ask questions. Not accusatory questions, and not questions that imply you know the answer – open ended questions that encourage your partner to talk. If they say their day was good you could say, “Great! What was good about it?” In other situations you might ask, “What are your thoughts on…?” or, “Can you tell me how you feel about…?” Ladies, be aware that asking your man too much about “feelings” could backfire though. Men are notoriously uncomfortable talking directly about feelings, so you’ll need to carefully consider your phrasing.
- Steer clear of assumptions. No matter how much you love someone or how long you’ve known them, you cannot read their mind. So, be careful with making statements like, “I know you think…” or “You feel like….” I actually worked with a man in counseling who, when his wife would say things like, “I love this” or “I believe that…,” would contradict her with statements like, “No you don’t.” Not a good communication tactic.
- Make eye contact. This goes back to the nonverbal communication, but is worth it’s own mention. When having a conversation with anyone making eye contact demonstrates interest, listening, and respect. Too many couples (and people in general) forget this. Looking at the TV, your phone, or a book while in a conversation conveys the message, “You and what you have to say aren’t that important to me.”
We all can become more effective communicators when we practice these skills, especially adjusting our tone to the situation and managing gestures so they don't pile on top of our words (more on effective communication skills).
Think about how you might be able to use silence and the skills listed above more often in your relationship. Improving your communication skills may just be what saves your marriage, or at least what keeps it pleasant.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published April 19, 2014 and has been updated with new information for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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