As people around the globe emerge from or enter lockdown, many are re-discovering the value of silence. Silence has many benefits but it can mean many things and it behoves us to develop our ability to listen in, argues Dr Luz María Gutiérrez Menéndez drawing on her research


One of the beauties for some of being in lockdown was a sense not only of slowing down, but of things being quieter, of being able to hear ourselves and others think. Many of us have gained a deeper sense of some of the benefits of silence.

My research has suggested that despite the fact that it’s usual to deny the effectiveness of silence in a conversation with others or even with yourself, the meanings of silence can be numerous and at the same time, paradoxical (Gutiérrez Menéndez, 2019), hence perhaps why some people feel uncomfortable with stillness. However, if we learn how to listen to it, this can bring benefits not just to ourselves but to our working life. Whatever our background or sector, we can be trained to use silence to our advantage.

Studies have indicated that listening in silence activates the auditory cortex (Kirste et al, 2015), which suggests something quite encouraging in these times in which noise pollution is affecting most of us and our environment. Kirste et al (2015, pp1225-1226) realised that the “sound of silence” promotes the generation of cells (adult hippocampal neurogenesis) in contrast to white noise, which is detrimental to the production and proliferation of cells.

Meanwhile, silence is now being used for patients with mental health issues (Mind, 2018) in contrast with approaches that use headphones to stop listening to those thoughts. And being in silence was shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure in comparison with slow tempo music (Bernardi et al, 2006).

However, the constant noise of today’s society doesn’t seem to encourage us to pause and have time to reconnect with ourselves in body, mind and soul. Quite the opposite: the lack of sound makes people uncomfortable and even anxious, as if they don’t know how to manage themselves. In education, presentation and relational skills can be lacking because teachers don’t seem to let children think and reflect (Lees, 2012). My research (Gutiérrez Menéndez, 2019) highlights people’s deficiency in the confidence to deal with silence.

So silence is beneficial but we’re not always equipped to deal with it. Yet participants in my research express the need for quiet moments, pockets of time that can help them reflect about their own identities as well as improving their cognitive skills.


The research

My research (Gutiérrez Menéndez, 2019) created a taxonomy showing the different and multitudinous meanings of silence and their impact in this fast-paced society.

There are many meanings colleagues could be indicating with their silence but that aren’t being noticed. If we become experts in silence, however, there’s so much more we can interpret and understand from ‘hearing nothing’. Silence is a marker of communication in our daily lives and interactions.

If our potential client breaks the conversation and we just hear ‘nothing’, this can be an exceptional informational clue. Being silent may mean they’re thinking, memory-making and reflecting. It could simply mean hesitation. Or on closer reflection, it could signify insecurity or even deceit.

My mixed methods research study involved interviews and a radio programme case study. The latter analysed silence on a UK radio programme, identifying various values in different scenarios, in personal and working relationships. It identified different notions of silence in respect to psychology and socio-psychology. Themes included: power, respect, torture, suppression of information, conflict, punishment, control, authority, revenge, conflict and marginalisation, agreement versus disagreement. In terms of potential emotions/feelings, these included: loneliness, contempt, compassion, embarrassment, shame, annoyance and feeling unsettled.

I compared the results from the case study with interviews with media professionals who envisaged the need to understand silence and its benefits, not just as a broadcasting tool but as a resource in fields such as education, management, medicine, health and psychology. Another theme was silence as personal development.


Silence as a frame

When we hear music and pay a bit of attention to the lyrics, we can usually listen to both the words and the silence. There isn’t one without the other. In a conversation, words need to be accompanied by silence – it would be extremely difficult or even impossible to understand if there weren’t gaps. Gaps and pauses do not just create rhythm but also, depending on their length we can figure out different meanings to the conversation, adding some extra information which can be offering some clues for our business. Of course, silence can indicate wisdom too.

First and foremost, the basic meaning of silence refers to punctuation, both written and spoken texts. A full stop and a comma separate sentences indicating some sort of regulation. Apart from the spaces between the words, which allow people to transmit a message, silence could inform an end of something and a beginning of some other information. Therefore, silence also allows clarity.


Working with silence

In coaching and leadership, when trying to be clear and explain concepts with order, there is no need for fast talk. Otherwise, the other party could feel rushed to provide an answer and this could jeopardise not just their learning but also their confidence.

Both in leadership and in coaching, silence as a communication marker can allow time for a colleague or client to think, maybe looking for the correct word or even allowing a greater reflection about what has been discussed. As coaches or leaders, we need to make a conscious effort to allow time for silence. Allowing a pause or a gap can help the other person rephrase or revisit a topic.

In leadership, coaching is increasingly an everyday practice and part of this is around fostering trust and motivation. Leaders need to encourage our staff and also need to believe in them. Employees are much more likely to improve in areas such as these – being more engaged and motivated, and trusting and earning trust – when they can see these characteristics in those who lead them. And silence as a communication agent can help leaders with this focus.

Of course, silence can be a great resource when we don’t have deep knowledge about a situation and carrying on talking could become a risk for ourselves and for our company. Silence here can be a very diplomatic tactic and hence, silence management can be a core skill.


Silence as control and authority

There is a difference, of course, between ‘being silenced’ and ‘being silent’. New employees tend to be silent more often than their longer-serving colleagues partly in deference to others’ expertise, and perhaps because in fear of getting things wrong.

However, silence from managers, bosses and team leaders can mean strength and power. At the same time, silence has the influence to frame these situations, for example, places or environments where silence would mean ‘respect’. As a rhetorical tool, knowing when to talk and when to be quiet can bring great and beneficial outcomes.

Learning about silence and how to use it belongs to the realm of social skills and communication. In subjects such as mentoring and coaching, silence is a tool, and can even be a weapon. Knowing how to use it and when to apply it can make all the difference in bringing success at work. Staff need to start listening to silence and map this space into categories: psychological and socio-psychological, for example. We should check the significance of silence according to different cultures first. It could be the case that those in the West associate silence with intimacy. Meanwhile, they may try to be silent as little as possible because of insecurity whereas other groups may feel happy with having no intention to talk for a while.

Maybe that silence is just a need for breathing but it could also sound as if the person is trying to recover memories. In addition, the pause could last for some seconds more than usual so we could wonder if that person is feeling well and comfortable – or maybe stressed and frustrated.

Silence can also give us information about sociological issues. Maybe those who are silent have something to hide, perhaps there is suppression of information on behalf of any management because of certain agendas. Or perhaps silence instead is about the fear of marginalisation and subsequent consequences. Far from agreement or disagreement, pauses could indicate a conflict issue, and therefore we need to be ready to carry on with the business.

That is why the physiology of silence can help us identify further meanings as well as improvise and be creative with the spaces of quietness. We are referring to meditation and mindfulness, letting our imagination flow, trying to be creative for our work. For clients, when waiting to hear a response and maybe some criticism, silence could help us engage in thought.



In short, if silence is understood and used more widely, individuals and businesses are likely to improve in both their career and health excellence pathways.

  • Dr Luz María Gutiérrez Menéndez was awarded a PhD in Media, Education and Psychology at UCL Institute of Education in the department of Culture, Communication and Media



  • L Bernardi, C Porta and P Sleight, ‘Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: The importance of silence’, in Heart, 92(4), 445–452, 2006
  • L M Gutiérrez Menéndez, From the Utopia of Quietness to the Fear of Stillness: A Taxonomic Research Study to Understanding ‘Silence’ through the medium of radio and Its Implications for Media, Education and Psychology. Doctoral thesis, UCL Institute of Education, 2019
  • L Kirste, Z Nicola, G Kronenberg, T L Walker, R C Liu and G Kempermann, ‘Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis, in Brain Structure and Function, 220(2), 1221–1228, 2013, 2015
  • H E Lees, Silence in Schools. Institute of Education Press, 2012
  • Mind, Managing Voices, 2018