What is your silence threshold? A few seconds, a minute, a few minutes? Personally speaking, becoming comfortable with silence has been a journey, one on which I have come a long way; yet, I still have much to discover. As a strong advocate of the effectiveness of the coach approach to leadership, I have been working hard to manage my natural tendency to try to problem solve for others and ‘rescue’ people from the seemingly awkwardness of their silence. I now recognize silence in conversations as ‘golden’ and a powerful precursor for solution based thinking.
When you ask others a question and they do not respond immediately, how quickly do you fill the space with your words? What would happen if you waited for them to respond? If you can stop yourself from filling the space after you ask a question, powerful thinking and clarity will ensue. How much silence can you cope with before you need to rescue someone from their silence? Who is more uncomfortable, you or them? These are important questions to reflect upon.
When silence happens, instead of rescuing someone with an easier question or my own thoughts, I have been training myself to leverage my curiosity. I do this by considering what is going through their mind and what has caused the silence. Are they reflecting? Considering options? Processing? Have they had an aha moment?
Learning to resist the urge to ‘solve’ problems or ‘rescue’ others from awkwardness has taken practice, but the impact for me has been profound. I have discovered that when I do not fill the space with my thoughts and give others the time they need to respond, their respect and trust for our relationship increases, and their solution based thinking is heightened. In my experience, more clarity follows silence.
To break the silence would interrupt others’ thinking. I have learned to resist my temptation to rephrase the question or ask another question, but instead allow the person I’m speaking with to process, think, and respond. I assure you, it’s not easy at first, but it gets easier with practice. Try it, you’ll witness its power.
People often ask if there is a point where you should say something. I believe that in most cases there is not, but it depends. You shouldn’t break silence to rescue someone, solve his or her problem, or make things less awkward. If you must say something, phrases that could prompt further comment include “tell me more,” or “what, if anything, is becoming clearer for you?” Eventually, if the person does not have a response to your question, or is uncomfortable responding, they will let you know.
Silence is golden when you’ve asked a question of someone. I always tell new coaches that one indication they are using powerful questions is if their coachee takes some time to consider their response before responding. Better yet, if that someone typically talks a lot but becomes silent, solution based thinking has definitely been engaged.
Welcome silence into your conversations. When you hear it, you’ll know powerful thinking is taking place, and more clarity is on the horizon.
Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP
Sandra is a sought-after speaker and facilitator on the topic of Leading With the Brain in Mind. She has a Masters in Leadership, a Certified Executive Coach designation, a certificate in Neuroleadership, and her CPHR and SHRM-SCP human resource designations. Early in her career she was a recipient of a national and international young leader award. Sandra’s interest in supporting the leadership growth of others has become her passion and purpose. She took her passion online in 2014 and developed the eLeadership Academy (e-leadershipacademy.com), an online leadership program which is now offered nationally and internationally. She proudly serves as part of the executive team for First Credit Union as Vice President of People & Culture. Connect with her via LinkedIn or email. Subscribe to her blog to receive a copy of the Whitepaper: eLearning for Leadership Development.