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.
Your partners in leadership.