Many leaders focus on verbal communication to convey their messages, but those who communicate with the sounds of silence, powered by energy, can speak louder without words.
During the last week of April, I was finishing up my 3 month winter residency in Maui and trying to get in the last few things I’d wanted to do before returning to my regular life in Chicago (which I was praying would not include snow). One of my last excursions was a visit to Lumeria, a lovely wellness retreat center where I experienced a Qi Gong class, followed by a traditional lomi lomi pohaku Hawaiian massage (so nourishing!). My visit reminded me of a powerful lesson: how much we can communicate with silence.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Qi Gong, I learned it’s a branch of Chinese Medicine that means energy work through movement that we can do for ourselves. As a coach and an emotional intelligence trainer I often work with shifting our mind’s energy for different outcomes, and I was intrigued to learn how to physically shift my energy myself.
Leading without Words
Before the Qi Gong class began, the teacher passed around a note which surprised me. It said: “I will be conducting the entire class in silence, due to overextending my vocal cords by singing loudly the last couple days”. I briefly wondered, “How am I going to learn something new if she won’t speak?”
But I’d already driven the 40 minutes to the retreat center, and had my massage scheduled afterwards, so I decided to ignore that skeptical voice in my head, and I stayed.
It turned out she didn’t need to speak! We could work with our energy and feel the impact by simply watching and mirroring her movements. We are hard wired to mirror, using the “mirror neurons” in our brains that automatically fire both when someone acts and when someone observes the same action performed by another. They’re why we feel happy when someone smiles at us and why we feel pain when we see them stub their toe.
I could feel the teacher’s energy by reading her facial expressions which were supportive and encouraging. I appreciated how she gently created eye contact with me when I wasn’t following her correctly, so I knew to look more closely and adjust. I left feeling more energized in my body and inspired by how much she communicated in the sounds of silence, without using a single word.
The Power of Nonverbal Communication
I was reminded of the famous research on nonverbal communication conducted by renowned behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian, where he extensively studied the strong importance of body language and created the 7-38-55 rule. The 7-38-55 rule essentially states that only 7% of all communication comes through verbal communication, while the nonverbal component of our daily communication accounts for 93%, with tonality of our voice at 38% and body language accounting for 55%.
Importantly, it wasn’t that words didn’t matter much. They were just the least important channel of communication. Body language was #1, and tonality was #2, and if they was any question as to the meaning, those two channels beat the words every time. Just think about the phrase, “I can’t believe you did that”. Your tone could come across as angry, disappointed, or delighted. What you’re saying is far less important than HOW you say it. Your tone conveys your emotional energy.
My Qi Gong teacher was able to communicate via body language, which got us 55% of the way there. And she also could communicate with the tones of silence. Even without words, she could convey emotional energy.
The Power of Silence
The power of silence doesn’t mean the absence of anything else. It means we make space to hear what’s really going on, paying close attention to other cues such as body language and emotions. Silence also gives us space for emotions to come through with crystal clear clarity. Words aren’t needed and sometimes even get in the way.
A Native American proverb says:
“Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to your heart, it knows.”
The Right Brain’s Untapped Potential
We intuitively know this to be true, but we often lean into and overuse our core left brain strength – verbal language – and forget to allow our right brain to shine through with its creativity and direct line to our emotional senses. It’s as if we are operating with one hand, one eye and one leg and not using the full extent of our powers.
When we are in flow, interconnected and balanced, we are in tune with more of our full potential. For example, think about how you feel when you…
- Walk in nature
- Relax to the sound of waves at the beach
- Hug another person
- Engage creatively when time flies by
- Interact with pets (like my dad’s dog, Theo, below) or young children (before they talk back!)
Do you feel the need to narrate these actions? Or are you just alive in the present moment to what you feel…?
On the flip side, have you ever said or done something that was taken out of context? And the more you try to explain, the deeper the hole you dig for yourself? Silence can cut through like words never could – if we choose the appropriate energetic response. Let me explain how…
The Silent Apology that Struck the Right Tone
My most impactful apology happened in silence – with a stranger during a silent retreat. I had accidentally taken another woman’s meditation bench, thinking it belonged to the retreat center when I saw it on her seemingly abandoned mat after our first morning. The next day, I discovered she’d returned and reclaimed the bench from my mat, as the teachers were announcing to everyone: “Please don’t take anything off anyone else’s mat”. In that instant, I knew those words were directed at me, and I could feel the heat emanating from her back which was all I could see.
We were committed to silence all week, but I knew I needed to convey how sorry I was…without words.
All I had to work with was my body language and energy.
When we finished meditating, I directed all my energy toward her. She turned around, and I looked up at her eyes so I could capture her attention. I saw coldness, and I knew without her needing to use any words that she’d been hurt and angered by my actions.
I put both hands on my heart, and with every fiber of my being, I tried to transmit what I was thinking and feeling in that moment:
“I am so sorry…I had no idea it was your bench…can you please forgive me.”
I naturally found myself bowing my head to show my humility. When I lifted it up again, I could see her eyes had visibly softened. They were brighter, glistening with tears, and a smile was forming slightly at her mouth. She bowed back to me, and I knew she’d forgiven me.
Moments before, this woman had been a complete stranger who I’d inadvertently made an enemy. But with our energy and body language, we’d transformed the situation; we’d communicated in silence, using the universal language of emotional energy.
The Universal Language of Energy
Research shows we have six emotions that are universal: anger, happiness, surprise, sadness, disgust, fear. Yet, we experience many complex emotions that can be harder to read, particularly since we may express them very differently based on diverse cultural norms across organizations and geographies. This HBR article, Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Translate Across Borders, helps elevate awareness around how emotional intelligence is like another language to be learned cross-culturally, something leaders should be aware of with their global teams.
While I’ve experienced the challenges of reading emotions in different cultures in my Corporate Executive global career (particularly in Japan where singing karaoke was a better way to connect than words), I’ve found when we show up authentically as human beings from the heart, we have more in common than we think.
In the case of my silent retreat, we were both American’s with a common culture and commitment to mindfulness, which helped us emotionally converse in silence. What surprised me was that my apology opened up a doorway to even more positive outcomes…
The Impact of Heart-Centered Communication
After a short break following our silent reconciliation, I returned to my mat and found a note hiding underneath my shawl. Knowing it was verboten to exchange written notes, I felt that old familiar surge of excitement like when we engaged in this activity back in high school. I scanned the room to make sure no one saw me discreetly pick up the paper and scan its contents. As I read it, I realized it was from her – and my heart began to melt at her compassionate words:
I’m happy to share my meditation bench with you. 🙂
I’m a commuter, and will not be using it at 9pm or 6:30am sits. Just please return after you are done using it. I brought it from home.
After the retreat ended, Taryn told me my heartfelt apology had opened her heart to compassion. I felt that shift immediately, even before her note spelled it out in 41 words.
Leaders Need to Manage the Energy in the Room
Ever walk into a room that feels electrically charged, like something wrong just happened? Amy Schumer joked about how “the vibe” had changed at the 2022 Oscars, after the commercial break following Will Smith’s slap heard around the world.
As leaders, you can change the room’s energy by managing your own energy, whether on Zoom meetings or as you segue into more in-person meetings, where energy becomes even easier to read. Many leaders with whom I’ve recently spoken know their staff is reticent and anxious about coming back into the office post-pandemic. Pay attention to your energy, and see how it may shift others’ energy too. Fortunately, positive energy is contagious! And when we are living in positive energy, we do our best work, get more done in less time, see more possibilities and improve relationships.
I’m often reminded of Maya Angelou’s quote:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Unleash Whole Brain Potential
In my emotional intelligence workshops with leaders, I love sharing the science and practice of how to unleash more optimal potential, beginning with mindful silence as a critical tool to add to your ever-expanding toolkit.
In the fall, I’ll be teaching my new course, Whole Brain Leadership, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. This Executive Education course is open to all business leaders and will help them understand and balance their left and right brain to optimize their full potential. Most business leaders are rewarded for overusing the left brain – which is responsible for language, analytical thinking, remembering what went wrong in the past and worrying about the future. Yet, when they learn to tap into the right brain, which is non-verbal, emotional and creative, they can connect and inspire others – which is what great leaders do. Being able to harness the power of both the left and right brain will lead to new heights for themselves and their organizations.
Even among business professionals who are more agile with right brain and left brain thinking, we all predominantly rely on left brain language centers and can work to create a better balance. I’m mindful that it’s my left brain who writes 90,000 words for my book, while my right brain knows it’s about how I make people feel. We all have so much more potential to connect on the right side which has direct access to the neurons or “brains” in our heart and gut/intuition too. Check the course out below and let me know your reactions and feedback, as we continue to develop the content! https://www.chicagobooth.edu/executiveeducation/programs/leadership/whole-brain-leadership
Ponder this week: How can you show up with the right energy at the right time?
Mind Your Fire,
p.s. If you need support, let’s chat. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or set up a complimentary discovery session at https://go.oncehub.com/Complimentary60minuteDiscoverySession.