“[S]ilence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it — as long as the person isn’t you,” wrote Robert Caro in his book Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. Caro is the author of a four-volume (so far) biography of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. In Working, he wrote about how to interview people successfully. His advice about silence, however, is something each of us might find useful in our relationships and conversations with other people.
It was reassuring to read Caro’s words when his book came out four years ago since I’ve long advised students in the writing classes I teach to avoid trying to fill any awkward silences when they were interviewing someone for a piece they were writing. Be patient and let the other person fill that silence first, I advised, and they will often find that some of the most forthcoming responses result. I have given similar advice to people going for job interviews. I also once told a crowd of high school students about to be interviewed by college professors for a potential scholarship that they’d be wise to get their professor interviewers filling as much of the silence in the interview as possible.
Caro recounted techniques used to fight the urge to fill every silence. Mystery writer Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret would clean his pipe while waiting for a suspect to talk. John le Carre’s George Smiley would use his necktie to clean his eyeglasses that he held in his hand. Caro himself wrote that he writes “SU” regularly in his interview notes to remind himself to shut up.
Silence indeed can feel uncomfortable. But rather than rush to hear our own voices to alleviate that discomfort, we’d all do better to have the patience to listen to what others have to say.
For almost 25 years, I’ve written some version of “The Right Thing” column in which I try to address ethical issues people face or ethical choices they have to make. While I often rely on email from readers to provide grist for the column, the column itself is pretty much me talking to you about whatever issue is the focus on the column that week. Sometimes readers respond to a column with their own takes on the topic, to express agreement, or to tell me how wrong they believe my take was. But mostly it’s me filling the silence.
As I’ve done from time to time over the years, I’m inviting you to fill that silence.
Email me (email@example.com) your stories of an ethical challenge you faced, what you did in response, and why. Share an episode you witnessed of others around you choosing to do the right thing when they could have done otherwise. Let me know who or what influences your decisions when it comes to doing the right thing. If a book, movie, television show, piece of art or some other work has been influential in shaping how you look at challenging choices, send the details along.
If ethics is indeed “how we behave when we decide we belong together,” as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers wrote in their book, A Simpler Way, then here’s the opportunity to share some of your stories about how you or those around you have behaved together. Here’s the opportunity to share your stories about how you’ve chosen to do the right thing. I’m listening.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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