Before the digital revolution, there were three conventional responses to approaches, questions, negotiation discussions and follow ups between colleagues, clients and service providers within a professional environment.

These were to agree, disagree (question) or defer. Due to the nature of communication – which was either face to face, telephonic or by letter – a response of some nature was expected and mostly forthcoming.

Today, there is a fourth response emerging. This response is silence – largely made possible by digital communication. No one would think to suddenly go silent during a face to face conversation or a telephone call, leaving their colleague or client to hang in a space of uncertainty; it would surely be deemed rude, uncomfortable for both parties and at the very least inappropriate.

So the question is, is it any less rude to respond to an emailed or voice message communication today with silence?

I can imagine that most reading this article are immediately thinking that it has become impossible to answer everyone who communicates with us, due to the digital communication overload. Personally I receive over 200 emails per day. Thank goodness we can be choosy as to who we respond to with caller ID and email identifications, or we would do nothing else, and still not get to everyone. But this is not about spam mail, sales calls and unknown first time sales approaches. It is a given that we ignore these, unless one happens to say exactly the right thing at the right time, which is unlikely.

Personality types come through quickly in digital and telephonic communication too, but these will mostly likely only influence the time taken to respond and the tone and focus of the response.

This article is about the use of silence as a finished response to a known service provider, client or colleague. Silence as a finished response isn’t a non-response – it’s simply an ‘open to interpretation’ response from which the other party could conclude as follows:

  1. We are too busy to answer, which leads right into the next option…
  2. They are not important enough to us to warrant an answer
  3. We don’t agree with what they are suggesting or asking, but don’t want to openly disagree
  4. We are unsure of how to respond and are therefore saying nothing (this differs to the above option)
  5. Their mail landed in our spam box and we are unaware of it completely
  6. Our circumstances have changed and they are no longer relevant to our situation
  7. We expect them to know what our silence means

Whichever of the above our colleagues or clients choose as the reason for our silence response, their conclusions are unlikely to be correct. More importantly, their conclusions could lead to a breakdown of trust in a relationship we have taken time to build and might not be able to build again on the same solid foundation.

We are all values driven. Those of us driven with values such as integrity, trust, respect and loyalty, which includes many of us, will tend to read a silence response as disrespectful to our business relationship.

Effective business leadership is also driven by values. Before using silence as a finished response, we should think carefully about how deafening a response this might be to someone important to our entrepreneurial and career journey.

As my husband has been known to say, “A wise man thinks carefully before saying nothing”.

Sandy Geyer is an entrepreneur and mentor who teaches the principles of entrepreneurial intelligence at ENQ Practice.

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