A Conversation with Elaine Lin Hering on The Power and Role of Silence in Effective Communication.


A Conversation with Elaine Lin Hering on The Power and Role of Silence in Effective Communication.

Having a seat at the table doesn’t mean that your voice gets heard. Knowing something is wrong doesn’t make it easy to speak up. But this silencing – intentional or not – has profound consequences on our work and life. It blocks talent, skews decisions and causes teams and individuals to fail. So what if there was another way?

In her new book, Unlearning Silence, Elaine Lin Hering draws on her experience as a lecturer at Harvard Law School and as a Managing Partner at one of the world’s leading leadership development companies. She delves into the roots of silence, examining the patterns that keep us trapped, and showcases the impact that rewiring unconscious behaviours can have on innovation, creativity and collaboration.

In this interview, I speak to Elaine Lin Hering about the role and power of silence in having more authentic conversations, foster inclusive spaces and amplify all voices. As Elaine notes, “…only by unlearning silence can we fully unleash talent, speak our minds, and be more complete versions of ourselves… and help other people do the same.

Q: What is silence, as it relates to communication?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: Silence is, by definition, an absence—an absence of voice, opinion, and life. It begins so subtly that it often goes unnoticed. We start by withdrawing or withholding our genuine thoughts from conversations, replacing them with what we presume others want to hear. However, because we hold back and fail to create safe spaces for open sharing, we lose out on brilliant ideas in brainstorming sessions or miss crucial warnings that could prevent future troubles. Silence involves biting your tongue to maintain peace, choosing your words carefully to manage the backlash you can handle, and conforming to assigned roles rather than pursuing the ones you desire. As it continues, silence essentially means we cannot fully be ourselves. We find ourselves editing parts of who we are, censoring our thoughts and feelings—and we do this to each other, often without realizing it.

Q: Why does truth often cause silence?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: So much of silence is about perpetuating the status quo, reinforcing what someone or dominant groups within an entity or organization have deemed appropriate, good, polite. Being different inherently exposes you to vulnerability; you’re pushing against everything that the forces of mimicry urge you to do, which is to conform. Yet, we also recognize that innovation is impossible without differing opinions. Without these, collaboration falters, understanding others fails, and all the things we aspire to do become unreachable. This is why I pose the question: What is your relationship with silence? Can you reckon with it? Silence plays an active role in your teams, in your life, and in your communication, whether you realize it or not. So at least become aware of it. You may still choose to remain silent in certain moments, but remember that you do have a choice.

Q: Silence has real consequences too, for example when people stay silent on safety matters?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: Let’s back up a bit, because in many situations, such as with Boeing, there were people who likely spoke up but were not heard. Too often, the responsibility is placed on the individual to speak up, yet people express that they have spoken up without seeing any impact. This leads us to analyse three key levers to determine whether we have a culture of voice or a culture of silence. First, do I speak up? Second, if I do speak up, am I heard? Leaders must have the capacity and willingness to listen to different perspectives and opinions, especially those they might not want to hear, and actively invite them. A practical way to foster this is by using standardized questions in discussions. Instead of simply asking, “What do you think?” or assuming they will speak, pose a set of paired questions: What works about this? What doesn’t work? What are the pros and cons? This approach naturally incorporates dissent, which is often difficult to voice. By consistently using these questions, we train our team to prepare and normalize sharing both dominant and alternative perspectives.

Thirdly, we need to review our policies and practices. Who do they support, and who do they silence? This lever—encompassing self, leader, and organizational culture—provides a clearer view of what’s happening and a more accurate diagnosis of organizational health. How can we know what’s going on? Often, we don’t until it’s too late. But we can get ahead by embedding standard questions, normalizing diverse perspectives, and modelling this behaviour. It’s crucial to reward those who speak up, use strategic stories to reinforce that we value open dialogue, and genuinely reward these actions. Real consequences arise when actions contradict these ideals—if someone speaks up and then finds themselves uninvited to meetings or no longer with the company, that signifies a prevailing culture of silence.

With whistleblowing therefore, the question really becomes: is there any point? By “no point,” I mean to ask: will it actually make a difference? Do I need to bear the personal cost of potentially not being believed or trusted, against the uncertain long-term benefit? This is the voice versus silence calculation that Amy Edmondson discusses. If there is a benefit, it’s enjoyed by the group, yet it’s not guaranteed. However, the cost to me in the short term is guaranteed and borne solely by me as an individual.

Q: Is there a time for silence?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: Despite authoring a book titled *Unlearning Silence*, I’m not against silence. Unlearning silence doesn’t mean speaking incessantly—the world is far too noisy for that. Instead, it means understanding the difference between choosing to be silent and having silence imposed upon you. It’s recognizing whether silence is additive or oppressive, whether it’s reflective and generative or merely detracting. It’s about having agency: Do I get to choose when to be silent? Furthermore, if you are using silence, use it to frame the narrative—explain what this silence means so others don’t misinterpret it. For example, you might say, “Let’s pause here. There’s been a lot shared; let’s take a minute, or five, or ten, to let it all sink in and allow us each to process.”

Q: Is silence an important skill in conflict resolution?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: The silence I employ has agency behind it. I choose to use it strategically as the pause between stimulus and response, differentiating a considered response from a mere reaction. We need more of this kind of silence. As a facilitator and mediator, it’s one of my favourite tools—I often joke that I can wait out the silence longer than you can. Why are we uncomfortable with silence? I’m not, if I’m choosing it, rather than being cornered into it as my only option when I’m not allowed to speak. I can speak, but I might choose silence either to avoid misspeaking or to create space for you to reveal your true interests (this taps into the hostage negotiation technique) because you may find silence harder to bear than I do. It’s profoundly useful. Chapter 3 of my book discusses the benefits of silence when it’s applied correctly. I’d like to add a few more benefits: self-care, self-preservation, and control of the narrative. In this hyper-connected world, we rush too often; we could all benefit from more intentional, agentic silence.

Q: How do we get over the psychological hurdles which keep us silent?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: I will say that my instinctive reaction often confirms that it’s as bad as I thought. I completely agree that we tend to overestimate the real and perceived costs that might never materialize. To counter this, I start with a practical approach or experiment, which is to own your perspective. A useful way to express this is by using the phrase ‘from where I sit’. For example, you might say, “From where I sit, that doesn’t make sense.” This doesn’t imply it can’t appear different from another’s viewpoint. It’s about recognizing that my perspective is both legitimate and limited, just as yours is. Often, we hesitate to speak up because we fear the counterargument. So, one tactic is “from where I sit,” and another is sharing the dilemma. Instead of being silenced by the anticipation of a rebuttal, acknowledge it openly. On a personal level, this might sound like, “You are driving me crazy, and I love you,” not “but I love you.” Using “and” connects these thoughts, offering a more accurate reflection of the complex world we navigate. So, can we embrace this complexity, name it, and discuss it, rather than defaulting to silence as our fallback—choosing simply not to say anything?

Q: Why does social media remove the inhibitions of silence?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: Particularly if you’re anonymous, because we often forget that behind each screen is a real person. You become a unidimensional object to me—I don’t have to face the consequences, see your tears, or witness the decline of your mental health. We have no relationship, and this detachment emboldens me to type freely. What I would add is a lesson: some of us, simply by how we’re wired, communicate more effectively and face fewer barriers when we type rather than talk. Yet, many of our workplaces and personal interactions prioritize verbal communication, especially in-person, because it activates mirror neurons. But what if we could tailor our communication strategies to fit our needs better? For instance, if you’re a post-processor who thinks better after the meeting has ended, why force a decision during the meeting when it won’t reflect our best thinking? If typing is how you communicate best, why isn’t it acceptable to have those discussions on platforms like Slack? This approach allows us to outsource our thinking but invites our best thinking and our best selves into the workplace. This is the low-hanging fruit that could enhance our interactions.

Q: How do we enable more open communication?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: The book delves deeply into the concept of making the implicit explicit, which necessitates us to pause and voice the often unspoken elements. This is particularly crucial if understanding typically relies on being part of the dominant group. For those in power, there might be a reluctance to decode the rules, viewing it as a potential disadvantage. I argue that it’s a matter of equity and efficiency. Instead of having team members waste time and energy figuring out how to communicate effectively with someone—for instance, figuring out the best way to reach me, Vikas, with no clear instructions—is simply inefficient and frustrating. A better approach would be to explicitly state, “The best way to reach me is to send an email, or if I’m not responsive, text me—or perhaps, don’t text me.” By clarifying what is often left implicit, we can minimize miscommunication and prevent misunderstandings, allowing for a clearer understanding and interpretation of the underlying dynamics.

Q: What can we apply from your work, to improve our lives?

[Elaine Lin Hering]: Remember, you have a choice. There truly is a choice. The silence we’ve adopted, along with the habits, behaviours, and patterns we’ve established, don’t have to dictate how we proceed today or tomorrow, even if they characterized our yesterdays. It’s challenging, to be clear. Changing behaviours is difficult. But on the other side of that challenge lies the opportunity for us to meet our needs, to build the teams we truly intend to build, and to accomplish all the positive things we’re striving for.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.