Our natural tendency in a conversation or meeting is to quickly fill any moments of silence.
Because, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable, so we attempt to talk over and through it to put ourselves more at ease. This is especially true now when we are communicating virtually and some of us are not very comfortable with navigating around the different online platforms.
Silence can actually tell you a lot about the other person and being comfortable with this silence is essential in truly understanding the person or group in front of you.
"He who does not understand your silence will not understand your words." Elbert Hubbard
To become a more effective communicator, you must try to become more comfortable with silence and know when it is appropriate to break the silence.
There are some non-verbal cues to look out for in order to understand what others are doing, thinking and feeling in their moments of silence. This is why turning on your camera is so essential when communicating virtually!
If you can see that a person’s eyes are moving this tells you that they are still thinking something through. When they start to look at you and stop moving their eyes they are signalling that it is okay to break the silence. When you break the silence, choose your words carefully as you would like to encourage the individual to fully describe what they are thinking.
For example you may like to say:
"Please tell us your thoughts when you’re comfortable.”
“What was going on for you just then?”
“When you’re ready, please share what you were thinking just now.”
If the topic of conversation is particularly challenging it may be that people are struggling to articulate what they are thinking or feeling. This is up to the skill of the host, the chair, the leader of the meeting to gauge to what extent the group is struggling to articulate themselves.
It may be more appropriate to ask the group to draw their thoughts and feelings. By drawing and doing some visualization exercises the words to communicate what they want to express can be more easily retrieved.
What are some reasons for silence in a group?
At the beginning of the meeting while everyone is settling down & getting prepared for the meeting ahead
Feeling a little cautious or nervous about the meeting they are about to have
Participants are thinking things through, processing information that has been shared
Experiencing negative emotions or feelings that have arisen that have surprised them or that they can’t make sense of
Indication that someone finished what they wanted to say or have lost their trail of thought
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. I am sure you can think of many other reasons.
If you cannot, I invite you to try this out:
Observe the silences in your next meeting and see if you can work out why there was silence. Also, try to stay silent during your next meeting and just listen - see what information this provides you. After the meeting you might like to record what you noticed and ask yourself:
What more do I know about the people there that I didn't know before?
It is challenging for those that are used to speaking a lot to stay silent, but it's a good activity to try once in a while, as Rumi points out “the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.”
Silence is useful.
So, what do we use it for?
to emphasize a point
to create excitement, anticipation, tension
to signal the close or end of what we are saying
to indicate we have finished one point and are moving onto the next; to give structure
So, before jumping in to fill the silence, try to remember that "silence isn't empty" it is often "full of answers."
Before speaking, think about why the silence may exist and look at the non-verbal cues such as eye movements.
By using and respecting the silent moments, your conversations and meetings will be a lot more fruitful and meaningful to all those that participate.
And of course in some situations it is better to remain silent and just smile!