The sound of silence

by John Higgins and Mark Cole

Silence is not neutral – it is full of meaning and always has a purpose.

It is far greater than simply an absence of sound. As we speak, it is silence that weaves between our words, offering them weight and significance. In conversation our pauses, short and long, make sense and carry weight through what it is we are saying, have tried to say or left unsaid.

Beyond this fact of silence as intrinsic to the rhythm of conversation, it can be seen as a denial or imposition coming from the wider world – ordered and demanded by those who find themselves invested with authority, making sure there is silence around what is not permitted to be said, as much as there is compulsory noise around what fits with the rules of the game.

Both silence and noise cast a shadow, revealing in plain sight the assumptions around who is allowed to have what type of presence in what setting, and what type of presence is not allowed.

Silence can come from inside a person, manifesting a desire to keep something hidden because it would show them in an unfavourable light – or maybe undermine the boundaries between what is theirs, or yours or ours. Silence and types of presence are in the gift of an individual and the relationships of which they are part. Silence is as much of a way of showing up as speaking.

The drumbeats of authenticity, alignment and organisational effectiveness create a perfect storm where silence, like a cancer or a safety net, grows – capable of sustaining and destroying life, as people pick their way through the habits of power in which they’re enmeshed whether they like it or not.

‘We own you,’ say the power brokers of the alphabet soup of the consultancy industry as they pay the big bucks and impose contracts that explicitly limit people’s rights as citizens: “Do not do anything that brings the company into disrepute” is tattooed into every tacit and explicit contract.

The establishment imposes non-disclosure agreements, taking full advantage of the imbalance of power that lies between individual and institution, and even makes the existence of such agreements undiscussable – silencing even the formal acknowledgement of silence.

As the norms of the workplace leak into every facet of life, so the dividing line between employee and citizen fades away, and we have the emergence of corporatist Ji Thought dominating public discourse, shaping who gets heard and who gets silenced.

Habits of totalitarianism take hold as surely in the Global North as they do in the Chinese mainland. Silence and the unheard voices reveal who are is dominant now.

This blog introduces some of the ideas that we are exploring in the course of our new writing project. We have previously spoken of this work as The Great Unheard. Our thinking and writing thus far suggests that a more appropriate title is The Great Silencing. If you would like to speak with us about this, we’d love to hear from you, so please drop us an email to

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