Silence has been said to be golden. There is value in learning to leverage silence, even in a time of learning to lean in. It’s not an either/or skill – as a leader, you need to develop judgment around when to speak up and when to be silent.
Think about your own experiences. When attending a meeting, some leaders feel the need to interject something – anything – just to be heard. Their comments may be irrelevant or unproductively disruptive, and this is important. If it's not relevant, and the disruption is not meant to spur better thought or dialogue – if you're just "showing up and throwing up," your opinion will quickly lose respect among your team, even if you're the boss.
Silence carries its own weight in conversations on a number of levels. Silence allows for internal processing and formulating thoughts. In negotiations, silence is a position of strength to uncover further information about the other party’s position. Silence can be a way of holding space for someone and allowing him or her the time and focus to truly feel like they are being heard. Silence is an opportunity for you to clear your head and be fully present to what’s being said, or not being said, and make decisions from the perspective of thoughtfulness rather than reacting.
When there is silence in the room, we generally feel uncomfortable unless we’re with family or friends we know well. When we are sitting in silence with someone who understands our silence, we generally do not make as many assumptions about the silence. We’re not imagining that the other person is angry, in a mood, bored or something else. We are more willing to accept the silence as something that is normal in the flow of the relationship. A break. A natural part of the rhythm of communication.
Silence in a meeting at work can feel infinitely more uncomfortable, particularly if we feel like we, as the leader, have to have the answers, or that whatever we say has to be pithy and brilliant.
Learning to be silent – and comfortable with silence – takes practice, like any leadership skill. Here are some thoughts about how to cultivate silence as a tool in your leadership toolkit:
- If you are an introvert, your natural state is to process internally. Simply making a statement like, “I need a little more time to think about that,” will help others realize that your silence signals that you are processing the conversation.
- If you are an extrovert, you tend to process out loud with others as a way of being. Note when others are silent, and honor that their style is different then yours.
- Also, if someone else is silent, don’t make assumptions. The power of conversation is that you can ask if you are confused. “I’m not sure how to read your silence. Would you like more time to process or do you have a question, or something else?” A well-placed question acknowledges the silence and allows the other person to explain and make a request.
- Don’t use silence as a weapon. Effective communication skills mean that sometimes you have to have tough conversations, and silence should not be the default when there is a missing conversation that would resolve a problem and strengthen a relationship.
The next time you choose to speak in a meeting, consider silence as a tool and an option for strengthening your thinking, your position, and your point of view, and those of others.