The ability to endure silence in meetings and discussions is an underrated skill that many don’t even know exists. Being in a group where nobody speaks for some moments can be extremely uncomfortable and awkward. Withstanding the urge to say something in those moments of silence is not easy to do.
This is particularly true in the context of (video) calls, where the subtle visual cues of facial expressions and gestures that often make up the flow of an in-person meeting, can be almost impossible to pick up on.
Nevertheless, enduring silence is an important skill to learn. It can be very rewarding and also lead to some exceptional outcomes.
I will try and collect my thoughts on the topic explaining the reasons why we struggle with silence and what happens if we do allow it. Finally, I will share some suggestions on dealing with moments of quiet.
The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
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Why silence is so rare
We have all been in meetings, similar to the two described in the following.
The first, a video call without real flow. Questions or comments hang in the air as the participants are awkwardly waiting for someone to say something. The discussion is then dominated by the same one or two people that jump in and try to alleviate the awkwardness by saying something.
The second, the meeting with no silent moment at all because one person dominates and answers or comments as soon as there is a chance to do so. This seems often to be the case for people in positions of power.
In my mind, these two types of meetings explain the two reasons for our struggles with silence. One is the awkwardness. Somehow it seems to be human nature to feel uncomfortable when no one is speaking. So we try to make it less awkward by filling silence.
The other is ego. Usually a single participant of a meeting – often people in positions of power – cannot wait to put their imprint on the discussion and share their ideas. I have often witnessed extreme cases, where this person asks a question that is ostensibly meant for someone else to answer. Without giving anyone a chance to do so, he transitions to a long monologue sharing his thoughts, ideas, and opinions before jumping to the next topic.
The effects of allowing silence
It’s unfortunate that we seem to be wired to immediately want to fill silence with words. Not doing so and allowing some moments of quiet has some extremely positive effects.
A few things will happen once you allow for silence. Mainly, it gives room for the other participants to take part in the meeting. Instead of one person or a few people dominating, we get a more equal setting.
This will lead to better outcomes for two reasons, a higher number of possible solutions to a problem and a more diverse set of solutions. On first sight, these two outcomes might seem identical but they do differ in the details.
The former means a higher quantity of possible solutions. This is simply a function of more people participating. Only if people participate, can they contribute. By giving the space to jump in, do we allow that.
The latter – more diverse solutions – means we get different types of ideas. It is the case because we avoid priming the participants with our own opinion. This is particularly true if the (senior) leader is the one that would normally dominate and speak first. This will (subconsciously) restrict the solution space, as it can be very hard for some to disagree with the leader’s line of thinking.
By enduring silence we thus allow for more input and more diverse points of view on the matter at hand. In the end, this will lead to more creative and better outcomes. As a side effect it also makes the team members feel more involved and creates a sense of ownership.
There’s more to listening than looking for an answer
We often forget that there is more to a conversation than to answer and give advice. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey stresses the importance of listening to truly understand without rushing to give advice. Unfortunately, many of us do exactly that, partly because we struggle enduring silence.
Enduring silence is part of empathic listening, a skill that we can and should learn. It is almost impossible to understand what the person is actually talking about or asking if you try to jump in right away with advice.
Sometimes, you can actually see and feel the person itching to answer. As soon as the opportunity arises, he or she shares the first thing that comes to mind, often simply to just kill the awkward silence. The silence could be used to collect thoughts, not just for the person answering but also for the person speaking. After a few seconds he or she often continues and shares deeper insights. This is particularly true in a one on one setting.
We are often listening to answer instead of listening to understand. We don’t give ourselves the chance to think about the background, the reasons, and motivations. We don’t truly try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.
Empathic listening is a skill that can be learned and it starts with being able to endure silence.
What to do?
So, how do we deal with the situation? The obvious things that come to mind all have to do with moderating, specifically the following three topics:
- Ask directly
- Breathe slowly
Instead of asking the question to the entire group we can address it directly to one of the participants. That way it doesn’t hang in the air until one person has mercy and answers. It’s clear whose turn it is. This is also a great way to involve people who haven’t taken part as much.
(If you watch panel discussions or listen to a podcast with multiple guests, this is exactly what good moderators or hosts will do.)
Taking one, big, slow breath before answering a question provides a short moment of silence. It gives our brain (and that of others) just enough time to collect our thoughts. This is a very straightforward but effective technique in enduring silence.
In the case of a meeting dominated by one or a few people, the moderator can and should intervene to pause them and let others speak. More often than not the dominant speakers actually appreciate the intervention. They often don’t want to dominate but can’t help themselves 😉
Make it a goal to always speak last
These are all techniques that are very effective. The most powerful thing we can do, though, is changing our own default behavior. It is also what we are in full control of. It doesn’t depend on others.
Set a good example and let the silence be. This will invite others to participate. Make it a general rule for yourself to always share your point of view last in any discussion. Nelson Mandela famously did exactly that and he is, after all, not the worst person to model our behavior after.
Coverphoto by Kristina Flour on Unsplash