Do you notice the sound of silence?

How comfortable are you with silence in a conversation? How common is it for you?

If you’ve grown up in North American culture, you probably have very little silence when you’re in a conversation with someone and chances are pretty good you’re not really comfortable with it either.

Studies have found the North American tolerance for silence during a conversation is one or two full seconds, at most, whereas in Japan it’s 8.2 seconds and almost as long in Finland.

Can you think of a time when there was an 8 second gap in a conversation and it didn’t turn you into panic mode trying to think of something to fill the space?

The thing is, space isn’t inherently a bad thing. The concept of “dead air” and silence being equated with a lack of conversation skills is a social construction – nothing more.

In fact, not only is silence not a bad thing, it’s can be a really good thing.

With silence we can gain wisdom, develop greater self control and demonstrate selflessness. It also lets people reflect, think deeply, say things they might otherwise hold back.

You may have witnessed this in negotiations or the last time you bought a car or a house.

People who sell large ticket items are often aware of the value of silence. A salesperson who outlines the benefits of their product and then shares the price might hear from their potential client, “Hmmm, it’s very expensive.” A simple, “I understand,” followed by a space is often met with the potential client saying, “But it’s gorgeous, I’ll take it.”

I’m not suggesting any one culture is better than another but when it comes to silence, the Japanese are on the right track. Silence really is golden — particularly when you allow silence into the conversations with people you lead.

How much silence do you have now?

Take some time this week to observe yourself.

Start with one to one conversations.

How much silence are you leaving after you ask a question?

How much before you respond to someone else’s question?

If you pause before answering, are they jumping in with other questions?

What about in group meetings — how much silence is there?

If there isn’t much silence, how much reflection might be happening? Or not?

So how do you bring more silence into your conversations?

Here are a few ideas for how to use silence to bring out the best in your conversations:

  • When you’re in a group meeting, pause, before jumping in. Count to two. Pause when you start speaking, count to two. Pause after asking questions, count to two.
  • When you’re meeting one on one with someone, particularly folks you lead, try asking open-ended questions as we suggested before in this blog. And then count to five. Yep, five. Let the other person take time to reflect before answering. If they haven’t answered by the time you count to five, it likely means you’ve asked a great question and they’re thinking about it — count to five again.
  • Another great technique is to pause after they speak. Ask a question, listen for the answer. Listen to understand, not to respond,. When they’ve concluded their response to you, take a few moments to reflect on what they’ve said. If you’re having a hard time, count again – this time to five or more. Ideally, use this time to think about what they’ve said. Maintain soft eye contact with them* and just reflect. See what happens. You may find they dive back into the conversation with deeper meaning and self-reflection.

*Soft eye contact means maintaining eye contact, without staring. Letting your eyes show you care.

As coaches, we frequently use these techniques in our coaching conversations. This is, in part, to allow ourselves to reflect upon what the client has said, to hear the feeling, the emotion, the deeper sense, but also to see where the client goes. Clients often dig deeper, or start to ask themselves some questions out loud, they themselves start to reflect on what they’ve just said. It’s spectacular — this is often where the “ah-ha” moments happen.

If silence feels awkward and you’re not sure how to maintain it, try asking, “and what else?” or something similar. “How does that make you feel?” “What did you think about that?” These slightly probing but engaging questions, fill the void a little bit, and help the other person to pause and reflect even more.

Coach’s Question

Where could you bring more silence to your conversations? What benefits are you missing in your meetings, and in your conversations with staff, by not allowing silence to do the heavy lifting?