Few things make people in a group setting more uncomfortable than silence.
People look awkwardly at their phones or notebooks while the lack of speech weighs heavily in the air. Nobody makes eye contact until someone breaks the tension with nervous laughter.
But, shhhh . . .
There’s power in that silence.
Musicians know this. A few (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claude Debussy, as a start) have been credited with variations on the sentiment that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Or as the jazz musician Miles Davis put it: “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Silence gives noise meaning. In many situations, it is a golden ticket to stronger communication and building trust.
After all, when we have a message to deliver, we want people to listen. Silence may signal that someone is actively paying attention and they need a moment to collect their thoughts before responding. Silence, in this case, suggests they’ve actually listened to the conversation before forming their own commentary.
Posing a good question to the group also may result in quiet space. People are thinking, figuring out how to frame their responses. Consider the communication styles of those around you. While some people work through their ideas verbally, others need a few minutes of quiet time to collect their thoughts and courage.
If a group is brainstorming or sharing ideas, you can expect that conversation will ebb and flow. For a few minutes, ideas may come very quickly and then the pace slows down. Just as a piece of music may contain different time signatures, this rhythm may change multiple times throughout the conversation. If you don’t allow space between the noise, ideas could be left out.
There are times, of course, that silence signals a problem.
For example, phone conversations or conference calls are difficult to monitor when it comes to silence. Because you can’t read non-verbal cues, it’s challenging to know whether silence means a person is thinking (perfect!), walked away in frustration (not perfect!), or got disconnected (oops!).
If you are gathering in person, silence could signal that everyone isn’t prepared for the meeting. Just because you created a thorough agenda doesn’t mean everyone has read it. Watch body language to determine whether people need a moment to compose their thoughts or they haven’t completed their homework.
The most difficult part about silence may not be interpreting it, but in allowing it to happen. Handling a bit of silence may be more challenging than you think.
We’re so used to filling quiet with sound that true silence may feel like eternity even if it’s only a few seconds or more.
If you’re tempted to jump in with a comment, stop. Count silently in your head or watch the second hand of a clock. Don’t fall into the trap of rescuing anybody. Let the awkward silence achieve its superpower.
You won’t have to wait long. In my experience someone will start talking in 10 seconds or less. Someone almost always does.
Shhh . . . wait for it.
Think about the last time you showed up for a meeting.
Did the group leader take a moment and review why the group was gathered? Did she summarize what had been agreed upon at the last meeting and what needed to be accomplished at this one?
How did that meeting go?
When a group meets, it pays to devote two to three minutes at the start of every meeting to recap previous efforts and share a vision for the future.
This does not mean you revisit the previous meeting’s entire agenda. Projects would never move forward if you did that. But taking a few minutes to share where things are at or what has happened since the last meeting can be beneficial.
To be clear, a recap is different than sending out meeting notes or minutes (which should be distributed after each gathering). But if you assume that everyone in the meeting has read the previous meeting notes, you are likely to be disappointed. (No judgment here. It’s reality.)
Even if everyone reads the notes and were at the last meeting, they will appreciate a reminder of what is going on, where things are headed, and what needs to be done.
After all, people make better decisions when they have context for the questions, needs, or purpose.
Start your recap with a statement of purpose, declare why you are meeting. Dignify past efforts by briefly providing the facts: the who, what, when, why. Let them know what needs attention and action today.
This statement can be part of each agenda and read by someone at the start of each meeting. The brief summary allows everyone to move as a team and step into the role of decision maker. It serves as a friendly reminder of why the group has gathered and keeps everyone focused on what is important at the moment.
There’s another way to look at it is like this. To move forward as a team, you should:
Identify purpose + Summarize steps taken + Identify desired outcome
If you want to make progress, it’s always worth taking a step or two backwards to recap.
Your partners in leadership.