Do you ever wish certain people would just stop talking?
Conversely, if you’re a person who thrives on talk, you may not appreciate the many different “sounds of silence”: musing, the meaningful pause, contemplation, pouting/sulking, brooding, hesitation, day-dreaming …. Quiet is restful, necessary for everyone’s emotional, mental and physical health.
It’s useful to understand these nuances before labelling what your colleagues may be doing.
However, some people are routinely too quiet – to their personal detriment and that of their colleagues. If you’ve noticed that someone’s ongoing silence appears to be causing problems for themselves and/or others, what can you do?
- Make an effort to get to know them – go out for a coffee together, build a relationship over a period of time. S/he may be the type who opens up in one-to-one situations. You don’t “just add water” with such people; the manager / colleague who deploys sensitivity and care with this person may find the gradual opening up very rewarding, and in turn, the quiet person develops ease in this relationship.
- Ask questions but don’t interrogate– find out where they are from, their travels, the food they like, sports interests, family and so on. Use open questions, but don’t interrogate and avoid being too personal if discomfort arises. A well-meaning person ‘showing interest’ may be constantly asking questions causing others to become ruffled. They mean well, but mostly engender wariness. So question with care, in the right amount and with good timing… know when to stop.
- Be responsive to lack of confidence – the brash and breezy types frequently forget (if they ever realised in the first place) that shyness and lack of confidence can be a constant source of misery. The best way forward is to demonstrate empathy for the other person and their issues, eg. normalise that sometimes starting a new role is hard. Talk about how hard you found that task or situation, and what you did about it. Don’t be impatient for their responses, no matter what you think you know already.
- Acknowledge and appreciate – this is vital in a “selfie age”, when so many people are out there, bragging about what they do. Quiet people frequently detest blowing their own trumpets, but they can feel ignored, especially when what they have done goes unnoticed. Maybe they’ve worked hard or wrought change for the better. Show that you’ve noticed what they’re doing and that it’s truly valued. Refrain from empty phrases and phony gestures; when singing praises, choose your moment wisely.
- Teach assertiveness and communication skills -the quiet person needs help to come out and speak up, and to some extent, it starts with themselves. Discuss with that person the ways they feel strongest when communicating, and build on this with training, videos and other resources. Don’t just go for the cliched stuff (often peddled by people with dubious credentials). Find suitable videos and courses (online or face-to-face) to develop skills.
- Set mini-milestones and encourage small wins – providing the quiet person is actually seeking to overcome their reticence and is working actively towards this goal, then reward the steps they’re making, sometimes small steps to begin with. Be careful as they may resent cheerleading exhortations, preferring lower key support. Discuss their goals and ask what helps them to progress.
- Give feedback on what they can do better and HOW – treat this as a private plan, just between the two of you, or the mentor and the quiet person, with you to oversee it. Find examples of how they respond and carefully analyse together, focusing on what to do differently and better next time. Find some well-known people with communication styles similar to that of your office quiet type, and build a conversation around awareness and skills. Or ask that person who they admire, and analyse exemplary communication styles together.
- Offer extra help – this could be through additional training, support with processes, language and idiom tools, or directives (if appropriate). Office cultures can be quite insensitive to people’s backgrounds and unaware of their proficiency in language, for example. Or a person may speak English fluently but not understand office slang which can exacerbate feelings of exclusion or worse, cause offence. Be extra supportive to new people who are shy. Offer one-on-one introductions to others and facilitate the conversations, don’t just leave them with internal freakouts.
- Pair with a coach-buddy – source a caring, confident team member who is willing to mentor the quiet employee. Again, check if this is, in fact, what’s called for before leaping in with suggestions. If you can, unobtrusively ensure that the relationship is mutually helpful; otherwise resentment breeds.
- Refer the person if problem is severe – much depends on the underlying reason for the silence. If you’ve both ascertained that outside help is warranted, do all you can to support that person with making inroads on rectifying the problem. Be aware, too, that silence may arise from fear (of bullies, consequences of actions, etc) or a perception that the office culture is beyond their power to remedy. Being quiet may be the equivalent of a lifejacket in a stormy sea. Don’t assume that someone’s quietness is anti-social or evidence of a flawed personality. Listen to the type of silence it could be, and you could (both) come up with a solution that really makes a difference.
Your best skills are listening and supporting.