For Managers


The Role of Silence in Conversation

Much can be gained or gleaned from pauses in conversation, especially in a professional setting where employees may need a nudge to share their true thoughts.


Social mores prompt us to handle lagging conversation with extreme caution. Specifically, when we feel the danger of conversational drag, we are urged to say something, anything to avoid an awkward pause. But while it may cause some discomfort, silence can actually be employed as a beneficial tool. Much can be gained or gleaned from pauses in conversation, especially in a professional setting where employees may need a nudge to share their true thoughts.

Forming habits as small as taking a beat after a comment, waiting for a further explanation, or pausing your own dialogue to collect your thoughts can change the culture of your office. Ideally, once the silence is broken, it is with a response that is more creative, more comprehensible, and more thoughtful than it would have otherwise been.

Before we dive into the mechanics of letting the silence flow, let’s talk about why it’s important to incorporate silence as a conversational device.

It enhances creativity

Embracing silence means taking a second to think beyond the most obvious answer or solution. When you resist blurting the first thing that comes to mind and truly consider a topic, you create time for brainstorming. By modeling this behavior with your team, you will establish a culture of reflection before speaking which will increase creativity in problem solving. 

It improves communication

If good communication is sharing ideas clearly and concisely, then speaking in circles as you think aloud is bad communication. Taking a moment to mentally formulate what you want to say, then saying it using fewer words will streamline your ideas so they are more easily understood. The team that understands its leader and each other is one united towards its goals.

It builds better relationships

Incorporating silence builds a stronger foundation for mutual respect. When your conversation partner knows that you want their genuine response and you are willing to wait for it, you will get a more thoughtful and honest reply. Waiting for a response is a sign of respect during conversation, so refraining from answering your own question or monologuing is a sign of goodwill and trust that what they have to say is valuable. Plus, it will work both ways. If you show a sincere desire to listen to everything they have to say and give them the space to share, they will naturally mirror that energy and really listen when you speak.

It helps with personality differences

Although different personalities have different communication styles, all can benefit from incorporating more conversational pauses. Introverts tend to take time to process their thoughts before sharing them, so they are often incorrectly assumed to be less collaborative or less contributive. Give introverts time in conversation to form their thoughts and then share them. Extroverts, on the other hand, benefit from a pause in conversation because it allows them to take a moment to filter and condense their ideas. You will benefit from your employees’ insights regardless of personality with a little more room for consideration.

Now that we understand why it is important to incorporate silence in conversations, we need to know how to start incorporating it. Here are a few tips on how to intentionally create those moments:

  • Notice when a thought is not fully developed or when someone has stunted their contribution. Rather than responding, wait patiently and they will get the cue to elaborate. If this is initially difficult for you, count to ten mentally to distract you from any awkward feelings as you await a response.
  • When asking for feedback or ideas, use keywords like honest, thoughtful, careful, etc. A request such as, “Can you share your honest thoughts on this design?” will automatically invite the other person to take a beat for consideration.
  • Pause before responding yourself. If the other person is about to jump in to fill the conversational void, let them know that you are thinking for a moment.
  • Feign comfort in silence until it’s real. Over time, your interlocutors will match that habit and you will both allow space for quiet reflection. 
  • Ask them a question a second time. We often see this when we follow up “How are you?” with “But how are you really?” This principle applies elsewhere as well. “How do you think the project is going?” may typically get a one-word answer like “good” or “fine.” Ask them a second time and they are going to pause, think for a moment, and give a more nuanced response.
  • Give the other person verbal permission or a (nice) command to think on it first. “Can you think about anything else this email is missing?” This lessens the tension they might otherwise feel to provide a quick response and gives them permission to really consider their reply.
  • Notice body language and cues. If someone looks like they have an unidentified thought, ask them to share what they are feeling and wait for a moment as they determine how to share what’s on their mind.
  • Do not complete someone else’s sentences, even if you think that you see where their thought is going. Also refrain from jumping in with a response that will abruptly end the other’s thought. That sends the message that you are tired of them talking and is counterproductive to an equitable exchange of ideas.

Remember that a conversation is usually either one-on-one or between a few people. Trying to use silence in a larger group setting such as a team meeting can backfire and make contributors feel singled out in front of an audience. Save it for brainstorming, solving problems, and check-ins with fewer people.

Likewise, be careful not to overuse silence! Too many breaks and expectant looks can make your partner feel uncomfortable or lacking.

In a world that can’t help but to listen to the voices shouting loudest, the best inspiration comes from a few extra seconds of quiet.

Incorporating silence in conversations may not be initially comfortable, but as you practice, those moments of pause will begin to feel like moments of repose. Rather than a tense awkwardness, you will find that a few seconds of peace will help you reset, and you can reframe your ideas without the pressure of an immediate response.

The tips found in this article work best in relationships where high trust exists. Need help fostering trust in your working relationships? Sign up to attend an upcoming FREE Campfire session, "Foundations of Trust."

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