Silences in Safety

With the subtlety sledgehammer, Dr Rob Long knocks the unattainable, meaningless ideas and slogans like “Zero Harm” and “Safety First” right on the noggin! Read more of his articles here

“Cultures that strategically know their silences are more sophisticated than cultures that fill the airwaves with meaningless noise.”

Silences in Safety

Sian Beilock wrote a great book called Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. It’s a book that helps explain how goals work psychologically and how athlete’s ‘choke’ when they allow wrong messages to get into their head. In sports, there are some things you just don’t talk about or think about, that’s the key to motivation. This is one of the problems with being the ‘favourite’ team or individual, psychologically such thinking is poison to success. I have lost count of the times when I was on a team that slaughtered the opposition all year only to lose in the final. There is nothing more damaging to effort than the belief and language that talks about ‘having arrived’. One of the great things about Australian culture is its hypersensitivity to ‘bragging’.

One of the key skills in communication is respect for silence. Listening and observing are just as important as telling and acting. When it comes to influencing, motivating and learning we also know that some things are best not said. We know that some messages are demotivating, or inspire wrong thinking or fill the mind with unproductive ideas. This is often illustrated in sport. Defeating, negative and uninspiring messages ‘prime’ athletes for failure, whereas positive and inspiring messages motivate them for success. Mental athletics is just as important in sports as physical athletics. Good athletes are able to block out bad messages, they just don’t need them. This doesn’t mean they are naïve or stupid, they know there is such a thing as failure, they just don’t need to talk or think about it. They know the importance of silence. Athletes know that if you fill the airwaves with unattainable perfection goals, that such ‘noise’ diminishes effort and drives complacency.

When we raise our children we are also careful about silences, we don’t introduce ideas into the heads of children because we know some ideas are unethical and non-motivating. It is because we care so much about the things that influence children that we chose to be silent in some things. This is not censorship but smart education, motivating children for the right things and remaining silent about others. We also know that setting unattainable goals creates depression and anxiety, the moment the goal is not achieved the child knows they are not good enough. Psychologists know that perfectionism is a criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder and often shows up a cause of drug addiction. Indeed, filling the heads of humans with ideas that they will only be accepted if they are perfect is in itself a delusion. Demands for absolutes and the language of absolutes is demotivating for humans. Let’s save the language of gods, for gods.

We know too that autosuggestion is very powerful. It works in advertising and the media, this is how ‘priming’ works. ‘Priming’ hearts and minds is sometimes intuitive and at other times counterintuitive. It takes some skill in psychology and social psychology to know when something works counterintuitively in the negative when indeed, the message looks on the surface as if it’s a positive. We may think it’s wonderful to build up the ego of someone with false hope in some grand idea that puffing up their self esteem is always good. Only to watch them ‘crash and burn’ when reality hits and the delusion drives them deeper into self defeating depression.

Autosuggestion is very powerful. We know that news reports about certain behaviours and ideas create ‘copycat’ behaviour that sometimes ‘go viral’, like ‘planking’. At the height of the ‘planking’ craze, people were losing their jobs because of copycat behaviour. Now that the craze and airwaves have gone silent, the behaviour has diminished. This is how ‘priming’ works, this is why silences make sense.

So when people don’t use certain language and are skilled in silences, it is absurd for others to argue that such silence proves ignorance and belief in its opposite.

When I do onsite coaching of managers and leaders I try to help them listen to the ‘silences’ as much as to the noises on site. It is just as important to know what is not said and why it is not said, than it is to be alert to what is said. It’s easy to observe and hear the visible, these rarely hurt you. It’s much more sophisticated and skilled to be able to observe and listen to the invisible.

Cultures that strategically know their silences are more sophisticated than cultures that fill the airwaves with meaningless noise. Cultures that are full of meaningless slogans and nonsense unattainable mantras ‘prime’ confusion and frustration in the minds of workers. Such cultures fill the airwaves with ‘double speak’ and minds with cynicism creating a climate of demotivation and constant requalification of what the messages ‘really’ mean. In the end, workers make the message mean whatever they want in some kind of act of mental gymnastics. As a result the atmosphere is demotivating and people play the ‘double speak’ game of acknowledging the mantra but thinking the opposite.

Does your organisation know how to be strategically silent?


Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

Latest posts by Dr Rob Long (see all)

Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below