I used to work for a contemporary Machiavelli.
When someone was angry with him on the phone, he would wait for his chance to respond. Then, as he started to respond, he would tap his finger on the hook, aborting the call while he himself was speaking!
When I first saw him do this, and I could tell the line was truly dead, I laughed, "Why did you do that?!"
"What is the other guy thinking now?" asked Niccolò. "He knows the line went dead. He knows it happened when I was speaking. So he knows that I didn't hang up on myself. No one would ever do that! So, he is thinking that I believe he hung up on me. He knows he didn't, so he wants to defend himself against that new, implied allegation. Right now, he is scrambling for my phone number. He will call within 60 seconds. And we will resume our conversation with a new tone."
We sat, waiting.
In a minute, the phone rang. Niccolò put it on speaker, so I could hear.
"Listen," said the other fellow. "I did not hang up on you."
"Sure. Whatever," said Niccolò, "All I know is: I was trying to respond to your complaint when the line — mysteriously — went — dead."
Then, Niccolò touched the mute button, so he could talk to me privately. "The next guy who talks, loses." And he gestured to zip his lip. We sat, smiling at each other, my 22-year-old eyes as wide as could be.
After an awkward silence, the other guy spoke first, capitulating, "O.K., perhaps I was out of line…"
(Be warned: If you ever hang up on me during an argument when you are talking, I am not calling you back.)
A Silence of Respect
Recently, I have learned the value — in a new way — of remaining silent.
This is not the silence of passive-aggressive, blank-faced withdrawal.
This is a silence that respects that the other person is thinking. That the other person might prefer to add to his or her own words first — because they aren't finished, or because the other person might want to respond to himself or herself first.
It's the silence of respect. Allowing breath. Slowing down the conversation. Interspersing our words with wonderment.
The Other Person?
I have learned that my silence serves the other person well. That most people really enjoy — and benefit from — the silence, the clear air, the lack of a rapid return volley.
(Please don't worry that I will remain silent. I will speak up. I just want to wait my turn. And my turn doesn't start until the other person is clearly ready for my turn.)
I used to think that I was paid for fast words and lots of them. These days, the older I get, the more I get paid for saying less. Strange. Much more effective for both me and thou. Much more interesting, too.
In the end…
The next who speaks, wins!
Because everyone wins when silence attends.
(Here's a way I remind myself to zip my lip.)