Want a great conversation? Be silent

Posted on April 3, 2018

Guest post written by Colin Wright, a ProjectScotland mentor.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman author, politician, lawyer and orator is generally attributed with the quote; 

“Silence is one of the great arts of conversation” 

I find this to be relevant to me in many ways and in many areas of both my professional and home life. Silence, although by no means the only tool, has the power to make a great conversation and indeed is often the missing element of “conversations” (by this “” I mean actually two monologues happening concurrently). Indeed, many times I have not used silence and as a result missed an opportunity to fully listen, understand and comprehend what the other person was telling me. 

Specifically, when it comes to mentoring and silence, I have been lucky enough to witness and learn from some fantastic colleagues, bosses, friends and people whom I have mentored. I have tried and failed with lots of different techniques before settling on the ones that, for the moment, work for me. (Disclaimer – this comes with no guarantee they will work for you!) 

  1. Silence my internal dialogue – All of those thoughts, memories and points where I can feel like I would add value. Simply listen fully to exactly what my mentee is telling me and understand what I am hearing, what I am seeing and what emotions they are portraying. Someone far better qualified than I put it as “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to respond” Stephen Covey author of 7 habits of highly effective peopleIf you have the opportunity, then I would recommend a read or re-read.
  2. Silence my mouth – It is a commonly stated, scientifically backed fact that we cannot talk and listen effectively simultaneously. As much as we love to think we can multi task it is not how our brains work (there are numerous research papers out there to prove it). When my mentee is talking I know that this is the time to engage my ears and brain and give my mouth some time to relax. As my Gran used to say ‘you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio’. This can go against what we think of as mentoring – providing advice and insight into an area our mentee is looking to explore. However therein lies the answer, it is my mentee who needs to explore and contextualise the advice to their scenario not simply listen to how it worked for me. 
  3. Silence my body – Put away the phone, the notebook and pen, the teaspoon, the coffee cup, anything that consciously or subconsciously takes my focus away from fully listening. My colleagues will laugh at this however, I have a tendency to play with my eyebrow when I am concentrating (strange I know). This stops when I fully listen. 

Silence is great, but as we all know if both parties are silent then there is no conversation. So, on your first meeting with your new mentee how do you get the conversation started? This is not a rhetorical questionI am always looking to add to my mentoring toolkit so if you have some great techniques that you use please share! For me at the moment I look at 3 areas: 


Where am I meeting them, is it comfortable, relaxed, does it encourage or prohibit conversation, does it feel like an interview or a place you would meet a friend for a chat? Even if the environment is prescribed, which will have been the case for many of us, what can we do to make it more relaxed even down to the seating position, more at 45 degrees to each other than sitting directly opposite. (Think the layout in Holyrood vs the layout in Westminster)


I wouldn’t go to a meeting with a customer or client having done no preparation (I know this is down to my personality) so why would I not invest the same effort in someone I genuinely believe has untapped potential? Find out about the placement they are doing, get as much insight from the project sponsors as possible, not necessarily about the person, focus more on what it is they are doing, what the organisation does and what purpose the organisation serves. This immediately generates some potential for common ground to be shared.  

Additionally, what will you wear to ensure they feel comfortable and how will you present yourself? My go to is to match the formality of my attire to the organisation they are volunteering with whilst still being true to myself, and a smile breaks down so many potential barriers. 

I remember my first ever mentee meeting vividly, I think I was more nervous than they were, I wanted to do the best by them and I was concerned I would get it wrong! Remember to SMILE and no matter how nervous you are they are more than likely in the same place, you can use this mutual feeling as common ground also – only if you are genuinely nervous though. 


I think about why I volunteered in the first place and have a clear image and dialogue which describes that accurately to someone else. For me it is the genuine belief that everyone has the potential to do things they never imagined were possible and the fact that I gain from this relationship also.  

That can sound very self-indulgent, but I gain experiences and viewpoints I would not have the chance to get, I value the experiences of others that I have never had. Ensuring they know it is a two-way trade works for one main reason in my opinion. If you are only gaining something from a mentoring experience whilst not feeling that you are giving anything as a mentee it can feel hollow, it can also lead to guilt – “This person is giving me their time, advice and experience and I am giving them nothing” “How can I repay them?” “Why am I receiving this and not someone else?” It’s not just that I gain… they need to know I gain. 

Finally – Be prepared, do all of the things that work for you and be just as prepared to not do any of them! We have all grown up having conversations constantly, trust yourself, trust in the person you are mentoring and appreciate that everyone is an individual who will pleasantly surprise you at any given moment.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for ProjectScotland, find out more and apply online.