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Silence Speaks Volumes in the Workplace

Q&A with Elaine Lin Hering, author of Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully.


Mon Apr 08 2024

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In the landscape of our modern workplaces, silence speaks volumes, shaping the dynamics of collaboration, innovation, and personal growth. I recently sat down with Elaine Lin Hering, author of Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully, to dive deeper into this topic and its significance for talent development professionals. We explored the transformative power of unlearning silence and its role in inclusivity and amplifying diverse voices.

Was there a specific moment or personal experience that inspired you to explore and write about the concept of silence?


I spent more than a decade teaching frameworks for negotiation, difficult conversations, and feedback created by the Harvard Negotiation Project to people across industries and geographies. I noticed that even after people and companies spent a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources on the training, some people wouldn’t use those skills—and I started to wonder why. The advice that most people offered and that I regurgitated about speaking up essentially boiled down to a “just do it” approach. Have more courage, have more confidence, and then we can promote you or you can have a seat at the table. That advice was unsatisfying and seemed irresponsible, especially given the ways that silence is baked into organizational policies, practices, and interpersonal dynamics. So, unlearning silence is a way to interrogate how silence undercuts our ability to collaborate, innovate, and deliver results—and how we can unleash the talent we and our team members have.

In your book, you explore the influence of silence and how it affects our ability to find our voices both at home and in the workplace. How does this intersect with talent development?

Employees cannot bring forth their best ideas, skills, and talent if they feel silenced. Most leaders would say they aim to support rather than silence the people they lead, and yet, far too many well-intentioned leaders have the unintentional impact of silencing the people they lead. Unlearning silence unlocks the different perspectives necessary for accurately developing employees at all levels, increasing employee engagement and retention, and being able to lead the talent pool to deliver on the organization’s mission.

Silence is often a coping mechanism or a survival strategy in various environments. How can individuals and organizations differentiate between constructive silence and the kind that impedes growth and collaboration?

The difference between silence that is additive and silence that is impeding is agency. Is the individual choosing silence for strategic purposes, or do they feel they have to choose silence because there is no other option? If an organization is silent on an issue, it leaves the narrative open to misinterpretation and misses the opportunity to cultivate engagement, course correct, and lend clarity. The key question is whether individuals feel able to choose to speak if they want to versus silence being the only option for keeping their job or standing. If their voice is not welcome within the organization, silence becomes the norm.


Building a culture where diverse voices are heard and valued is critical for talent development. How can leaders leverage unlearning silence as a tool to promote inclusivity and create learning environments where all voices are heard and respected?

Unlearning silence is the fundamental awareness that we each have the opportunity to disrupt bias, affect cultural norms, and influence how we work together. The most valuable way leaders can leverage unlearning silence is to unlearn the ways they silence the very people they claim to care about and support. The disconnect between a leader’s words and actions undermines trust and productivity. The book highlights nine ways leaders unintentionally silence people and what to do instead. Using this as a diagnostic tool for how leaders might be silencing their teams creates a learning environment where all voices can be heard and respected.

In your book, you share a few stories from your own experience of being silenced. Can you share an example of how addressing silence affected your own growth and development, or your organizational or team outcomes? What key takeaways can talent development professionals apply in the workplace for similar results?

Silence happens when norms aren’t clarified, and we don’t think we can ask. Early in my career, I noticed that the CEO of a firm always checked emails and attended team meetings while on vacation. A senior person’s behavior shapes unofficial norms and sends a louder message than any official policy. After observing that everyone else in the organization followed suit and also stayed connected to work while technically on paid time off, I raised the issue with the CEO to see whether they intended for everyone to work while on PTO. They quickly clarified that while they preferred to keep tabs on things, there was no need for everyone else to work while on vacation. In the next team meeting, they clarified that paid time off should be just that—off.

This exchange taught me two things: First, leaders often remain unaware of how their behaviors are interpreted and become unofficial policy—that may or may not be the policies and practices they intend to normalize. And second, using your voice to ask a question creates the opportunity for leaders to clarify—and in this case, allowed people to get the time offline necessary to rest, recharge, and show up more fully when back.


Talent development professionals can continue to examine whether leader behaviors, policies, and practices are having the impact they intend. Ask what the expectation, norm, or policy actually is; who the practice supports; and who the practice silences. This allows you to audit whether an organization’s actions are having the impact they intend, and which unintended impacts you need to address.

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