A friend of mine would always say “You can’t NOT communicate.” He was right. Even when you say nothing, you are saying something.
Try this experiment. After reading this post, go up to the first person you see and ask them a question. It doesn’t matter what the question is, just something that will require more than a yes or no response. As they answer, look at them without saying a word or making any facial expressions. Be completely stoic. Then when they are finished, walk away. No thank you’s, no explanations, no goodbyes. Two things will happen. Either that person will call out to you and say “Hey, what was that about?” or they will turn to anyone close by who may have witnessed the exchange and say “Hey, what was that all about?”
When you think about it, there shouldn’t be anything unusual about you remaining quiet. You asked a question, they answered it. What else is required? But it doesn’t work that way. As humans, there are some fundamental social rules that we are expected to follow. Rules that center around reciprocation, fairness and responsibility. Many thousands of years ago, when our species evolved into social animals, we needed to establish these tenets for our relationships in order to have a civilized society that functioned properly. It is why as toddlers we are taught to say thank you when someone does something for us, why we play the role of listener without interrupting while someone else is talking, and why we hold lying and deception in such contempt. Our social interactions with one another depend on reciprocation, fairness and being responsible if we are to function as a community. Not saying anything, whether in your words, your expressions, or your gestures just defies these basic principles and leaves the person being questioned very uneasy. They expected an acknowledgment that you heard them and appreciated them answering YOUR question (reciprocation), they expected to be told or at least glean some idea as to why you were asking them the question in the first place (fairness), and they expected to know what you intend to do with the information they just shared (responsibility). Blankly staring at them and silently walking away alerts their brain that something is wrong.
The silence of others does not mean they aren’t communicating with you. When you don’t hear from a client or customer or member, it doesn’t mean they aren’t saying anything, and when your employees aren’t speaking up, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Their silence should cause your brain to say “Hey, what was that all about?” But too often, it doesn’t. Most organizations ignore silence, assuming that no communication simply means no one has anything to say. They are wrong. Quite often the silence of others says more then their words ever could.
So look around and take notice of the people you haven’t heard from in awhile. Use their silence as an opportunity to reengage. To ask them if they are alright, if there is something you did wrong, if there is anything they need, if there is anything you can do to help. It will do more for your relationship than remaining silent, I can promise you that.