Produce deafening silence, remain eloquently silent: Using quiet as a powerful communications tool

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on the boundaries of linguistic precision in describing perceived objective facts ends with a sentence that has since become a well-known saying: “What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”. With that, exactly one hundred years ago, the Austrian philosopher launched the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy, confronting the perceived accuracy of the written and the spoken word with skepticism. In the face of thematic complexity, the call for quiet – or at least for pause and reflection – appears rather absurd to communicators operating in a digital age that has neither temporal nor spatial limitations when it comes to dialogue and exchange. It is therefore not surprising that, when working with powerful communications strategies and effective PR tools, focus is almost always placed on pro-active messaging and transmission, and rarely on active listening – not to mention conscious and targeted silence.

This places prevailing practice in communications departments and agencies in diametrical opposition to the needs of a post-modern economy. Where legality is being replaced by legitimacy as a yardstick in assessing business (and political) activity and where passive goals are being ousted by active interest groups, empathy becomes a key success factor as Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) and Jeremy Rifkin (Empathic Civilization) have so convincingly portrayed. The problem is that many communicators tend to feel uneasy with quiet, which is why our discipline is shaped by speakers rather than observers (Klein-Bölting/Klewes 2010). This is all the more surprising given the shift in focus – from monologue to dialogue, from public announcements to moments of quiet, and thus from sending to receiving and a return to the origins of market activity. Published back in 1999, the Cluetrain Manifesto for the Digital Age and its chapter heading “Markets are Conversations” referred to the communicative hand-to-hand combat that has long shaped business dialogue and which was only temporarily displaced by the production and communication demands of the industrial age.

Yet those who strive for dialogue must be able to listen and those who want to listen must be able to endure silence. By rights, they should be able to do so, because the inner ear is the only human organ that is already fully developed before we are born. That said, many PR managers nonetheless perceive quiet as white torture. In the quietest place on Earth, the Orfield laboratories in Minnesota in the US (-9 decibels compared to 30 decibels in the average bedroom), people can stand the silence for no more than 45 minutes. In many communications departments, people’s patience appears even shorter. But what must be remembered is that quiet is not only a prerequisite for successful dialogue – it is also a powerful communications tool that can be used to counter the noise of the digital world. Figures of speech like “calm before the storm”, “deafening silence” and “remaining eloquently silent” pay witness to this.

Listening and holding one’s tongue call for self-awareness, openness for other people’s standpoints and patience. They also require the ability for communicative receptiveness to be embedded within the organization. Jim Macnamara, an Australian Professor of Public Communication and the former CEO of a media evaluation company, speaks of the “Architecture of Listening” which every company needs – not just in its technology, but also in its human and institutional skills. In other words, although new options for monitoring and evaluation are useful, they often only highlight the significance of medial echo effects and interest-driven campaigns. In many cases, what is far more important in identifying future trends is revealing the relevance of an issue in one-to-one discussions and group talks.

Pausing, reflecting and listening in phases of success are of existential importance when the critical fall height has been reached, when an opposing devil’s advocate emerges to rock the stable environment, and when internal and external tones begin to change. As it was also Ludwig Wittgenstein who gave us the saying “words are deeds”, it thus makes sense to use them sparingly – including and especially when managing communications.

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