This February, I attended a Chora Media Festival in Milan on the world of podcasts. I participated in some of the sessions offered, and one of them was titled Silence Makes Noise. It was conducted by Luca Micheli and Guido Bertolotti, respectively responsible for sound and sound engineering at Chora. Although they were discussing sound design from a technical perspective, they allowed my thoughts to wander, and I decided to draw inspiration from the insights they offered for this article.

One of the concepts they expressed during the session was that silence does not exist. They referred to John Cage, an American experimental composer, who in 1952 released 4’33”, a composition whose score instructs the performer to not play anything for the entire duration of the piece. According to Cage, silence is an integral part of a musical piece and holds the same importance as the notes played. Additionally, I read that some researchers at Johns Hopkins University argue that our brains interpret the absence of sound as a sound itself, as if receiving an acoustic input of silence and perceiving it.

Of course, it was impossible for me not to think of Paul Watzlawick and his Pragmatics of Human Communication. Particularly, the first of the five axioms, the properties of communication that have strong interpersonal implications, in which he states that one cannot not communicate, and thus, even silence is communication.

Let’s take a step back. The assumption is that communication is inevitable and falls within the realm of behaviors (composed of both what is done and what is not done). Therefore, every communication, even when unintentional, can always be interpreted as a message carrying meanings.

This is evident in every situation in life, from when we argue with someone and they decide not to speak to us, to the realm of crises I deal with, where communication is to be understood as one of the actions to implement in crisis management, perhaps the most important one. The choice of communicating; the timing of doing so; the content decided to convey; the channels and identified interlocutors; communicate values, resources, and capabilities, and consciously or not, significantly influence relationships and the effectiveness of the crisis management strategy.

Why, even in organizational crises, is silence not a strategically valid option? I could go on listing the reasons, but they are mainly summarizable in three points. The first is that those involved, directly or indirectly, have the right to know what happened, why, and what is being done to mitigate the negative impacts of the crisis and address the difficulties it has generated or will generate. The second is that without communication, the organization will not be able to position itself as a leader, authoritative interlocutor, and deserving of trust in managing the crisis. And the third is that someone else – in this case, media, public figures, people involved in the events, other organizations, etc. – will occupy that communicative void instead, developing narratives that are not necessarily truthful or favorable to the involved organization.

Therefore, in this sense, even in crises, silence makes noise. It speaks louder than a thousand words when interpreted as neglect or admission of guilt and is deafening to those expecting answers or attention that do not arrive. It reminds me of the anechoic chamber (without echo) that eliminates all external noises and sounds. Those who have been there tell of hearing their own heartbeat, the sound of blood flowing through their veins, and the sound of joints rubbing against bones. For many, a traumatic experience. It’s like when you’re involved in a crisis and no one engages with you, which is another way of expressing the full meaning of what communication means, and everything inside you and what you’re experiencing is amplified.

Yet, “silence” makes sense in crisis communication when it is consciously a pause from verbal communication, a moment of listening, a space where meanings are being exchanged without using words. A bit like John Cage intends it, where it holds the same importance as the notes played.

Now I propose an exercise before saying goodbye. Think of a crisis situation you’ve experienced or witnessed, personally or in your organization, where no one told you anything. Did you actually feel silence, or did that silence make noise? And if you were to describe it in words, what would you think of? If you like, let me know!

I’m Irene, and I help organizations prepare for and manage critical events. You can find me on LinkedIn and IG (@crisis_with_irene).

Author: Irene Proto

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