Deafening Silence

Written by Laurie Hillis

Hi, I’m Laurie Hillis, I love what I do: the learning, the process, and above all, seeing how my clients grow as leaders.


June 4, 2024

What to do when no one is talking


These words popped into my head as I read a Psychological Safety focused newsletter from As I read the words now, I am struck at the weight of them. Each one is heavy in and of itself. Put them all together, and it feels like there is an elephant standing on my chest.

We all grow up learning when we should speak up and when we should remain silent, through encouragement (“Use your words; tell them what you want.”) and discouragement (“Not now, the adults are talking.”) from the adults in our lives. Often unintentioned, we are rewarded or reprimanded for using our voices, whether it is to share our emotions (positive and negative), offer ideas, or ask questions. In the workplace, rewards and reprimands may sound different than when we were kids, but they feel familiar and the effect is the same.

Silence in the workplace

When no one is speaking, especially when prompted, it’s often a signal that something isn’t working. The newsletter cites a literature review paper that suggests various types of silence:

  • Acquiescent: Withholding of ideas, opinions and suggestions due to a feeling that it won’t make a difference.
  • Defensive: Withholding information, concerns or mistakes due to a fear of being penalized or reprimanded.
  • Prosocial/Relational: A “good” silence that reflects withholding confidential or proprietary information to protect people or the organization.
  • Deviant: Silence with malicious intent, including the aim of inducing someone to make a mistake (or at least not stopping them).
  • Diffident: Related to Defensive Silence, but more passive and stems more from someone’s past experiences, insecurities or self-doubt, than from a conscious belief about the group they’re in.

How can we encourage engagement?

When unwillingness to speak up is deeply rooted in a person’s lived experiences, it’s difficult to get them to change their ways. It certainly can’t happen over night. Much research and commentary exists around cultivating psychological safety, that you’re likely to find a whole host of ideas, but here are a few actionable things you can do to build safety in your workplace (source: Timothy Clark’s Four Stages of Psychological Safety: Behavioral Guide):

  • Ask twice as much as you tell. When you ask someone a question, it’s an invitation to engage, is a form of validation, and increases confidence.
  • Express gratitude and appreciation. When team members perform well, express genuine gratitude and appreciation. When they try hard, but fail to meet their goals, recognize their efforts with empathy.
  • Share past mistakes. It’s hard to learn from mistakes if a team has a culture that hides them. Share some of your mistakes, laugh at them, and share what you learned from them.
  • Take your finger off the fear button. Fear triggers a self-censoring instinct that causes people to retreat into silence.
  • Model the art of disagreement. Invite your team to debate issues on their merits and find the best one without creating fear and interpersonal conflict.

Silence isn’t always a bad thing

There are types of silence that are highly beneficial; it can mean someone is thinking; aiming to be deliberate with what they are about to say. Many times, a person waiting for a response can be uncomfortable with silence, leading to a compulsion to fill it with chatter. The downfall of filling the silence is that the “thinker” becomes distracted or the conversation becomes of lower value because they avoid or don’t have a chance to say the things that really matter. There is value in getting comfortable with this kind of “preparatory silence” and giving people time to work out what they want to say. Chances are, what they offer will be of high value.


When you find yourself holding back, ask yourself: When you see someone else holding back, ask yourself:
What has been your experience speaking up in the past? Why might they be holding back? Are they checked out? Scared? Might they need some time to think and prepare what to say?
Have you been rejected, dismissed, punished? Do they understand what is being asked of them?
What are you fearful of? Does your culture allow for mistakes, “out of the box” thinking, disagreements?
What’s the worst that could happen if you do speak up? How can you ensure psychological safety and build their confidence?
What good might come if you do? How can you model engagement?

Let’s connect:

If you want to know more about Megatrain and how we can work together, drop me a line:

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