I’ve been recently conducting some focus groups for my Russian clients. Finding out what I already know: that Russians in general are not a very mobile workforce, and in this case do not necessarily want to move from their larger city place of work to a much smaller location in Siberia.

I’ve been doing this together with one of the Russian senior managers, a lovely man who is energetic, and passionate about the company and why more people should move for the company to this new location.

Doing the focus groups I have been reminded of the power of silence. Not because no-one is speaking but indeed for the opposite reason. My business colleague, in his enthusiasm to convert people to the cause, cannot bear the slightest pause after he (or I) ask a question, or in the general discussion, and immediately feels the need to fill it.

Which means that our focus group members do not need to talk to us as much as we would like and we are not hearing as much as we could. Of course we (I) manage the issue and we learn what we need to know.

But the experience has taken me back to other situations where I have actually taught and used the power of silence, however uncomfortable that might feel, whether this might be in interviews, coaching, facilitation, presentations, bad news discussions or negotiations.

In fact having worked with many different nationalities, I know our degree of discomfort with silence is also cultural. Americans and English-speaking countries – and I guess Russia as well now – start to feel uncomfortable after a couple of seconds and jump in to fill the gap. Others, the Japanese for example (and perhaps Kazakhs), feel at ease, even with much longer gaps.

However learning to accept (or force) yourself to be silent, can have great benefits.

Interviews:

Working in recruitment for Shell many years ago, I learned the power of silence when used correctly in interviews and attempted to teach it to all of my interviewers and assessors. Less experienced interviewers always feel they are responsible for ending awkward silences but there are two situations where staying silent really is the best strategy.

First after asking a question. The interviewee falls silent and (hopefully) thinks. The interviewer concludes they’ve asked a bad or unclear question so jump in to explain or even answer themselves. Ask a question and then wait. The interviewee should be the next one to speak. The silence should not be putting you under pressure.

And the second option for silence is after they have answered. Wait for a few seconds rather than rush into the next question. They may then decide to add something or say something they weren’t sure about confiding. And thereby giving you even more meaningful information.

Coaching:

Executive Coaching is perhaps a more obvious area where silence can play a key role. But even here it can be difficult at times for coaches to keep quiet and not want to fill the space with their own thoughts and ideas. You pose a question (because coaching is the process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge & opportunities they need in order to develop themselves and become more effective) and wait for an answer.

The focus is on the client and keeping silent suggests that you are listening and supporting, that you are there to serve them. That you are empathetic. The silence encourages them to think, to make connections, to get new thoughts and to consider new learnings. Indeed silence may actually be the sign that a topic is extremely important to them. The really experienced coach will understand that silence is also communication.

Facilitation:

Facilitators in meetings and workshops manage the process and the energy in a group. Classically a facilitator will often feel the need to ensure high energy, interaction and constant talk. And filling any gap themselves. But this doesn’t always need to be the case. Both for participants – as some people prefer to process information in silence rather than by talking – or indeed the process, as silence can force people to think and participate.

Silence can also be a powerful facilitation tool when people are talking and getting nowhere, irritated, angry, holding sidebar conversations, at an impasse. Then call for a silence to reflect, ‘not in frustration but in anticipation’ because ‘collective thoughts have a force and vitality of their own’. The silence then taps into the ‘gathered mind’ (1). And the process moves on.

I remember being taught facilitation trouble-shooting, again many years ago, when a group goes silent. There are three possible approaches when no-one in the group wants to start or continue the discussion.

  • If you think the question is too complex or too soon in the process: break it into several questions
  • If they might be shy or unfamiliar with each other: get them active writing on flip charts or post-its
  • But if the question is challenging or unforeseen: repeat the question and stay silent. Keeping your nerve

However occasionally even silence can be too much of a good thing. If an unplanned silence lasts for a whole minute then as a facilitator you probably do need to do something. Park the topic and move on.

Presentations:

Silence can work surprisingly well if used in presentations. Again the pressure is usually on the speaker to keep talking. But silence is not just for dramatic effect. First it shows you are in control, that you dare. But more importantly it forces people to pay attention. Pause so that the audience doesn’t miss your key points. That the listeners actually process them.

Silence incidentally is just as valuable in bad news discussions. Give your message simply and wait. Don’t keep on talking because you are finding it difficult and want to fill the silence. Let the person process what you are saying cognitively rather than just hearing it and responding emotionally. Which they probably still will. But the silence gives them the chance to move further than an initial emotional reaction.

Negotiations:

Finally silence can also be negotiation tactic. State your pitch and then keep quiet. Say you don’t agree and then wait for them to fill the silence. Letting people again really think. About the value of what they want, what you can offer, and maybe what they should be offering you.

In summary.

Silence allows people to start thinking cognitively. Don’t be afraid of what you feel might be overly long periods of silence. It doesn’t mean you have lost control. Silence can be your friend, silence can indeed be golden, helping you to be successful.

 

(1) From Charlotte Roberts in ‘The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook’

2 Comments

  1. Elise Van den Bussche

    Great reading, Gary Hays!

    Reply
  2. Rosa Kleve

    Thx Gary, nice!!!

    Reply

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