Bill was a senior manager in a large telecommunications company.  There was a studious air about him.  He wore spectacles with thick lenses that magnified his eyes.  Bald and portly, he was always well turned out – spurning the invitation to dress down on Fridays – and his shoes were exceptionally highly polished.  In a previous existence he had been an army officer and retained the practice of buffing up his shoes with spit, polish and a soft cloth (never anything as rough as a brush!).

Bill had one truly alarming habit; without warning, in the middle of a conversation, he would fall silent.  There were many occasions when, suddenly, Bill would lapse into a long silence. This could happen at any time; in mid-sentence, when you had finished answering a question he had asked, even when you had asked him a question.

Once Bill fell silent, it was as though he had gone into suspended animation.  He’d gaze at you through his thick lenses with a blank expression.  If he had been a character in a comic, he’d have been drawn with a stream of ‘thinks’ bubbles pouring out of the top of his head.  In the absence of any bubbles, it was hard for anyone to know how to interpret the sudden silence.  Had something offended him?  Had he lost his train of thought?  Had he been asked a question that was so profound it required deep thought?  Was he meditating?  Had he been struck dumb by a stroke?

The trouble was that most people, embarrassed by the sudden silence, would start gabbling. One of Bill’s colleagues became very irritated with his inability to tolerate the silences. On the first few occasions when Bill fell silent, in common with most people, Bill’s colleague found himself filling the gap with an unprepared monologue. In hindsight, he always regretted this because it meant he had blurted out inconsequential, ill-advised things just to fill the silence.

So, he devised a plan to survive the silences.  He set himself the objective of not, under any circumstances, being the first to speak.  No matter how long it took, Bill would have to break the silence, not him.  The plan to get through the silence without losing his nerve was simple (as the best plans always are); he would concentrate on counting (not sheep, but numbers!) and this, he reckoned, would keep him busy and fill the void.

He only had to implement his plan once.  Bill fell silent, the colleague started counting (in his head, not out loud).  He kept counting….. and counting….. and counting.  Eventually, somewhere in the three-hundreds, Bill broke the silence by saying, ‘You’ve changed’. 

The colleague came clean about his objective and plan and Bill never inflicted a silence on him again.

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