The Power of Silence

In September 2018 I observed my first World Institute for Action Learning session. I couldn’t believe how calm the meeting was. There were periods of silence, where people were stopping to think before speaking. I found this amazing. Periods of silence are unheard of, you’re normally fighting for someone to draw breath so you can get your thoughts and views put forward. The other thing I noticed, was that allowing silence slowed the pace of the conversation right down. The conversation was more thoughtful and considered. It also allowed for every member of the group to share their thoughts and ask questions. You may be thinking, with more silence and a slower pace the meeting had to be double the length of time, right?. Wrong!. This is what sold it for me. The meeting time was actually shorter than normal and far more productive.

I’d hazard a guess that very few of your meetings allow for silence. I’ve sat in Executive and Board Meetings where silence is minimal, if not non-existent. The discussion is lively and fast paced, there’s barely time to draw breath. Interruptions and speaking over one another is common parlance.  You notice people putting up their fingers/hands to indicate they have something to say, even before you’ve finished speaking.  For me, when this happens, I lose my train of thought. I signal for them to go for it.  But they haven’t listened. The whole time they’ve been formulating a response, so what they contribute is either irrelevant or unhelpful. Sigh.

Why silence is golden?

Many of us tend to hate silence and perceive it as bad. Any pauses in conversation, we start to get awkward and uncomfortable. We desperately feel the need to fill the void, with ‘aimless riffing’.

In a recent team coaching session, where I used action learning, a member of the team had a realisation. They realised that silence made the team better at discussing and coming to decisions. Where normally they find silence awkward and hard, they could really see the benefit of having more silence within the discussion. They started to see other members of the team contributing. By making the most of the silence they thought about what to say, rather than blurting out the first thing that came to mind. Their contributions were more valuable and impactful because they were being considered and building on the thoughts of others.

Silence is golden because you have time to take in what’s being said. You can think about it and organise your thoughts. Silence enables you to build on the conversation. With silence you are able to listen to understand, rather than listen to defend. It helps us to consider, process and understand. We can think about what we want to say, how we can build on the conversation and what questions we need to ask to deepen our understanding.

Why doesn’t silence happen very often?

Unfortunately the last few decades have been typified by individualistic heroic leadership. This is where individuals feel they need to be the expert. When you have this mindset, you feel you need to have all the knowledge and answers to everything. You exert your power, influence and control over the discussion, often domineering the conversation and taking a defensive position. It also means you feel the need to come up with solutions, before you’ve even understood the problem or listened to others. Which lies at the heart of the issue.

The heroic leadership approach has been very successful for many over the last few decades. So it’s hard to change this mindset. However, times have changed. The world is too complex, fast paced and uncertain for one individual to have all the knowledge and answers. This is why being able to allow the whole team to contribute their unique skills and talents to discussions is absolutely essential. This means relinquishing the expert/hero leadership stance. It’s no longer a successful leadership approach. Open yourself up to the thoughts, ideas and views of others. It’s okay not to have a the answer. It’s okay to listen to others first before reaching a decision.

How to improve silence in your meetings

  1. Role of the meeting facilitator – when chairing a meeting ensure everyone has the opportunity to speak. This is especially important for virtual and hybrid meetings. Use people’s names to engage them in the conversation if you notice they haven’t contributed ‘Kathryn, I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this’. Also enforce pauses into the conversation – let’s take a pause to think about where we are in this discussion and what’s important to focus on.
  2. Agree team norms – agree with the team what’s okay and what’s not okay in how you engage within team meetings i.e. it’s okay to take a moment to think before you speak, it’s not okay to interrupt. Agree that the facilitator of the meeting will ensure people have time to contribute if they have something to say, so there is no need to raise fingers/hands.
  3. Slow down – consciously slow down, listen to understand not to respond. Count to 10 and then 10 again before you speak – force yourself to slow down before speaking or interjecting. This is a particularly useful tip if you tend to be the person who speaks first in group discussions.
  4. Curiosity Led Leadership – you don’t need to know the answers to everything. It’s impossible for leaders to have all the knowledge, expertise and information.  It’s okay to not know the answer. Use the diversity of your Board, Executive or Leadership team to explore together the problem and its solution. Ask questions of the team first, before sharing your thoughts/advice.

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