Department of Medicine Publications

Silence, Power and Communication in the Operating Room

Document Type


Publication Date



Journal of Advanced Nursing





First Page


Last Page


URL with Digital Object Identifier


Aim.  This paper is a report of a study conducted to explore whether a 1- to 3-minute preoperative interprofessional team briefing with a structured checklist was an effective way to support communication in the operating room.

Background.  Previous research suggests that nurses often feel constrained in their ability to communicate with physicians. Previous research on silence and power suggests that silence is not only a reflection of powerlessness or passivity, and that silence and speech are not opposites, but closely interrelated.

Methods.  We conducted a retrospective study of silences observed in communication between nurses and surgeons in a multi-site observational study of interprofessional communication in the operating room. Over 700 surgical procedures were observed from 2005–2007. Instances of communication characterized by unresolved or unarticulated issues were identified in field notes and analysed from a critical ethnography perspective.

Findings.  We identified three forms of recurring ‘silences’: absence of communication; not responding to queries or requests; and speaking quietly. These silences may be defensive or strategic, and they may be influenced by larger institutional and structural power dynamics as well as by the immediate situational context.

Conclusions.  There is no single answer to the question of why ‘nobody said anything’. Exploring silences in relation to power suggests that there are multiple and complex ways that constrained communication is produced in the operating room, which are essential to understand in order to improve interprofessional communication and collaboration.


Dr. Lorelei Lingard is currently a faculty member at The University of Western Ontario.

Find in your library