Why silence is such a powerful leadership tool
When Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, paused for 21 seconds (check it out here) before answering a question about the racial tensions in the United States, everybody talked about the pause, not the content of his answer. The pause made most people so uncomfortable that it became the focus of attention during the news reports following the press conference.
When I was part of the Learning and Development team of Delhaize Group (before it became Ahold Delhaize), we developed a curriculum around ‘Fierce Conversations.’ ‘Fierce Conversations’ is a book written by Susan Scott about the power of effective conversations. It addresses in a practical way how to prepare and handle conversations such as team brainstorms, coaching, development, and conflict. One of the tactics discussed is named: ‘let silence do the heavy lifting.’ The tactic addresses the effect of pausing and being silent during your conversations.
We will probably never know whether the silence of Justin Trudeau was intentional or whether he was looking for the right words. But we do know it was so powerful that it made the headlines of all the major newspapers. The critical question to answer is why that was the case; why were those 21 seconds of silence so powerful.
Let’s do a little experiment today. I’d like you to observe a conversation between two people and watch them talk to each other. Pick a random conversation. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing. Just make it part of your regular daily routine. This time, however, you don’t become part of the conversation, but you observe for a while. First task, count the number of silences you witness during the conversation. Second task, observe whether each of the persons is truly listening to the other person.
Unless you’re unlucky, from an experiment perspective, you will likely witness two or more people not listening to each other. They will be talking over each other and focused on getting their viewpoint across, rather than listening to and building on the perspective of the other person. This happens most of the time.
A joke I heard many years ago is that listening is predominantly waiting until the other person has to breathe so that you can talk. That’s how it is these days. We’re so consumed by our ego and our perspectives that we don’t take the time to listen to what the other person has to say.
Let’s do another experiment. When you’re in a conversation, build in a deliberate moment of silence. Instead of continuing to talk and build on your points, or whatever you had to say, just pause and wait. It’s very likely the silence will make both you and your conversation partner very uncomfortable. Because both of you are not used to having silences in your conversations. We’re so consumed by always be doing something, including talking, that moments of silence freak us out. Some people literally cannot handle silence and always look for action around them.
What happens when we pause?
First, when we pause, we force ourselves to finish what we had to say. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. We’re so used to not pausing, that we keep talking until we’re interrupted or need to breathe. So what do we do? We keep building on our previous point or, even worse, we start repeating ourselves. This happens all the time. I’m guilty as charged. I find it hard to pause, and I notice that I start repeating myself. Your point will be more powerful when you talk to the point (the period at the end of the sentence) and then pause.
Second, when we pause, we allow our conversation partner to think about what was said. We let them fill in the blanks for themselves. You made your point; now it’s up to the other person to decide what to do with your point. That’s where the power comes in. Instead of you keep talking, trying to convince the other person, you allow time and space for your point to sink in. That time and space often does the magic, and adds value to your point.
Just watch Justin Trudeau once again here. In this case, the question asked was pointed. And he let the silence do the heavy lifting before he spoke. Those 21 seconds of silence made his words more significant. Please understand that I focus on the process here for the sake of my argument. I’m not making any political statements here.
Finally, what can you do when your conversation partner continually interrupts and doesn’t allow for any silence? It often happens that you try to practice silence, but the people you talk with are so uncomfortable with the silence that the immediately start talking when you pause, or even before you pause. Those are the types of conversations where two people have their own conversation with themselves without even recording what the other person is saying. They talk past each other. Have you ever been part of such as conversation? They’re fun to watch, but not fun to be part of. Because you’re either not listening to yourself or not listened to.
If your partner doesn’t know how to deal with silence, force yourself to pause when the person eventually stops talking. Wait for a few seconds before you respond. I guarantee your pause will draw attention. Perhaps not the first or second time, but surely, the third time if you’re consistent. The pause will put weight on your words. And that’s all you want.
Question: How well do you listen? How often do you practice silence in your conversations?