Recently, after a particularly tough meeting, a client said to me: “whew, that was intense. You are so good at sitting with silence.” I could have been insulted, but after discussing it with her, I realized that this remark was actually a compliment.
I was using silence to enable progress. This skill, which requires some cultivation, is more rare and difficult than we sometimes acknowledge.
In many corporate meeting rooms, leaders fear silence. To fill the empty space, leaders often react to silence in counter-productive ways: they get flustered, repetitive, or even defensive, inadvertently alienating their teams and sabotaging their goals.
But what they don’t realize is that if they lean in to the counter-intuitive response – the silence – rather than fear it, they can make deeper connections with their teams and make faster headway toward their goals.
Let’s say you’re leading a meeting to deliver a tough message. Someone raises a question or there is a lull in the team’s mood, and a strained silence ensues. The tendency of many leaders – even the most experienced of us – is to fill the silence with noise, or to dismiss it and move on.
Next time this happens, try a different approach:
- Pause. Look around. Or, if you’re on a conference call, sit quietly.
- Count to ten. Don’t rush.
- Ask: what is the silence about? Sit quietly.
- Count to five this time.
When you do this, one of two things will happen:
- Someone will respond, and start a conversation that gets people to share what’s really on their minds,
- The team will remain silent.
If the team is still silent after five seconds, ask some probing questions. Some examples:
- How does this news sit with you?
- Is this silence a sign that you disagree, but aren’t comfortable saying that?
- Does it mean you are still making up your mind about how you feel, or that you’re indifferent about this news?
Trust that by this point, if you haven’t already gotten people to open up, they will…and as a result, the conversation will become a lot deeper and more productive for all of you. Using silence in this way can enhance the group’s trust — in each other, in you, and in your message.
Don’t be afraid of the silence.