Why silence is the most overlooked communication tool

Disconnecting can have a startling effect on the ability to be present, notes Mission North’s Tyler Perry.

Mission North's Tyler Perry.

During a recent sabbatical from Mission North, I saw my best self in two months of relatively idyllic conditions. This came in large part by truly disconnecting — from work, social media and the perpetual sense of urgency I often feel running a communications agency for high-growth companies. 

The cornerstone of my sabbatical was a Buddhist silent meditation retreat, an ironic choice for an extroverted professional communicator. After eight days, I was blown away by the transformational impact this had on my psyche. Silence creates space for the three most important communications tools: being present; processing thoughts in a calm, constructive way; and listening. 

The power of presence

Disconnecting had a startling effect on my ability to be present. With no books or screens, I relinquished all sense of anticipation and fell into a deep state of calm. I observed things often overlooked, focused on our teachers and lived in the moment without worrying what’s coming next or what I should be doing. I’ve tried to maintain this presence in several ways. I’ve removed social media and games from my phone. When on Zoom calls, I shut down other screens and put my phone away. When I am writing or thinking, I try to avoid the temptation to check my email or Slack. Let me be clear: this.is.hard.work. And it is embarrassing that it is so hard. When I can focus on being present, however, I am able to better observe verbal and visual cues from clients and teammates, more deeply understand the discussion and immerse myself in the work at hand.

Calming the Monkey Mind

In Buddhism, the concept of the Monkey Mind describes how your thoughts mimic a monkey swinging from branch to branch. When I got inside my mind, it was hilarious how impossible it was to focus on more than three breaths without swinging from thought to thought. As the week progressed, I started to quiet my thoughts and experienced greater clarity and objectivity. Since my return, I’ve found a better ability to focus my role and make decisions for my company. In addition to a greater ability to home in on what’s important, a calmer mind allows me to reduce my reactions to stressful situations, like a client crisis or a conflict with a colleague. When I do feel myself escalating, I’m working to incorporate a pause to collect my thoughts and avoid a more emotional response. I’ve seen huge improvement at home with my two boys; I have found it harder with grownups, but my husband will hopefully attest to progress.

Talk less

I love to engage, tell stories and problem solve. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve realized I need to talk less and listen more. Removing the option to comment or question had a profound effect. I truly absorbed the content being shared with me, and noticed things I would never have caught if I had been thinking about what I was going to say, or doing most of the talking. This is a journey for me — probably one of the hardest given how energized I get in groups — but I am noticing improvement and impact. Other leaders step in when space is made. Ideas are often better as I am not flattening the discussion with my pontification. I ask better questions and get to the why or  the “there there” in a more effective way. 

This experience was an important reminder of the power of silence, whether it is sitting in a meeting, counseling a client, or seeing my 13 year old wear the same sweatshirt for 13 days. It creates room for other voices and ideas, builds space for more deliberate response and enables a deeper understanding of a given conversation. For an extroverted, over-energetic fixer, more silence feels at times like an insurmountable challenge, but I have actually come to need it. Old dog, new tricks!

Tyler Perry is co-CEO of Mission North. 

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