In the workplace, we have announced an action plan and asked for objections but no one speaks up. Or in a social context, we have taken a position on something controversial and no one openly disagrees with us. Do we assume that a failure to object means general agreement with us?
We might, due to the consensus bias or false consensus effect: our tendency to assume that more people agree with us or share our beliefs than actually do. If something makes a lot of sense to us and feels right, we tend to overestimate how much others agree with us. So if no one objects openly, it confirms this assumption that they must be on board.
Yet we know there are many reasons people might not voice disagreement, such as not feeling safe to disagree, not feeling their perspective is valued, or feeling that the cost of disagreeing outweighs the potential gain. Particularly with controversial topics where there seems to be only one “right answer,” it can feel very scary to indicate any disagreement.
Assuming silence means disagreement is also problematic. We ask others to back us up and we hear nothing, so if they’re not with us, they must be against us. Here’s the problem: how narrowly have we defined what it means to be “with us?” If others frame the issue differently, they might not endorse our specific articulation of it. This does not imply that they endorse an entirely opposing view. If their actions aren’t at odds with our position, assuming they oppose us says more about us than them.
✨ Silence is rarely a clear answer, so it’s always best not to assume.
Silence can be a powerful tool in communications, carries different meanings in different cultural contexts and is subject to many interpretations.
❓Have you made an assumption about someone’s silence recently?