The Value of Silence:

quarter-rests

Today’s post is an introspective post for me. I will be looking at “silence”, its cultural implications in Japan, its use as a form of self-improvement and some stories about silence in the Toyota Production System. I was in a meeting recently, and during my self-reflection time at night, I observed that I did not learn or try to understand the perspective in the meeting. I was not listening because I was trying to prove my knowledge to the other side. I was not being silent or listening. Perhaps, I am a harsh critic of myself. But I have made up my mind that I will be practicing silence more.

One of my favorite sayings about silence is;

Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens.”

This is sometimes attributed to the great musician Jimi Hendrix. However, there is no proof that he did say this. There is a similar quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes;

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”

I am an avid fan of Japanese Culture and interestingly, silence is an important facet in Japanese culture. It is said that it is tough to negotiate with Japanese businessmen since they employ long periods of silence that others are not used to. In the West, silence is generally unbearable. It is viewed as a break in communication. In Japanese culture, silence is viewed as a communicative act. Silence can be effectively utilized in negotiations since it can make the other side nervous. In the Japanese culture, however, silence has several positive attributes which includes being respectful and polite, and avoiding confrontation.

I am looking at silence in four regards as a practice of self-improvement;

  • Respect for others:

Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” He identified this as the fifth habit of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In Zen, there is a great lesson that you are given two ears and one mouth, and that their use must be in the same ratio – listen two times more than you speak.

  • Self Reflection:

Engaging in silence is a pre-requisite for self-reflection. This allows the mental fog to clear out and the mind to organize better. Think of silence as an act of clearing up space in your mind to allow deep-felt thoughts to come in.

  • Teaching:

Being silent sometimes prompts the other side to keep on talking and perhaps encourage them to come out of their comfort zone. This can have the effect of being a good sounding board for their ideas. This is similar to the Socratic teaching method of asking questions. But in this case, remaining silent allows the other side to focus on their thoughts more and find the solutions to the problems at hand.

  • Effectively Communicating:

This may seem counterintuitive, but engaging in silence can improve your communication. In Japanese calligraphy, the empty space is as important as the written words. This empty space is quite similar to the “negative space” in design. It is the valleys that point our attention at the hills. The same is applicable for the use of effective silence in communication.

Silence in the Toyota Literature:

There are two instances I have seen where “silence” jumped out at me. The first one was in Masaaki Sato’s “Toyota Leaders”, where Sato talked about the ex-President and Chairman of Toyota. Eiji was a person who employed silence in his communication; he considered each question seriously and provided responses after much thought. EIji is hailed by Forbes as the creator of the Modern Version of Toyota. EIji was also a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, and his “out of the ordinary” methods.

The second instance is from the book “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”, co-authored by Taiichi Ohno. In the book, Ohno talked about how the other employees were against his methods that would later become the Toyota Production System. All the hate and resentment were absorbed by his two managers, Eiji Toyoda and Saito Naichi. They both allowed Ohno to continue with his methods and to find ways of reducing manufacturing costs. Ohno referred to their relationship as a silent relationship of mutual trust. They both did not question Ohno and in turn Ohno did not ask for their approvals.

“I knew all too well how they worried about me and what I was doing. Yet they never said “Do This!” or “Do that!” For my part, I never had to say “I’d like to do this” or “Please let me do that.”I just did everything I thought had to be done. Had I asked permission, my resolve would have weakened because of the pressure to prove what I was doing. Had either side said anything, the relationship would have collapsed.”

Final Words:

This post was written as a reminder to myself to use silence more. I will finish with a great Zen story on silence;

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words. After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. “It has been ten years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Bed… hard…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk’s office. “It has been ten more years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Food… stinks…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, “What are your two words now, after these ten years?”

“I… quit!” said the monk.

“Well, I can see why,” replied the head monk. “All you ever do is complain.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean.

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7 thoughts on “The Value of Silence:

  1. Harish,
    Great post. Practicing silence is so difficult. I think in the American culture silence unfortunately is viewed as all too often as a sign of lack of knowledge or lack of participation or evidence of not adding value. When, in fact, silence in the workplace and really anytime can lead to unobstructed idea generation, employee development, and confidence building in others. If practiced often and done well, silence truly is golden.

    I still need more practice.
    Todd

    Liked by 1 person

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