Becoming comfortable with silence at meetings

Silence is sexy 21686590_a821f3c026_oSilence during a meeting is often seen as something awkward and uncomfortable, something to be avoided. We may feel embarrassed and think “somebody say something!” Yet silence is often an essential tool for effective sessions at meetings, allowing participants to think before speaking, to notice feelings, and to rest and recharge. Facilitators need to be comfortable with silence, as it usually signals something important.

For example, when I run plus/delta—a technique for quickly evaluating a session or conference—I have to consciously remain quiet once participants’ initial responses die down. A long pause, followed by a neutral request for more suggestions elicits more contributions, and the sharing typically continues for two to three times longer than the time elapsed when the first pause occurred.

Because silence is generally only acceptable in certain specific group situations (groups of strangers, prayer, performances, etc.) when we want to employ it during a meetings we need to facilitate its use. For example, sometimes we need it so that people have quiet time to think when they are asked to write down answers to one or more questions. If we don’t explicitly request silence beforehand, those who finish first tend to start talking to each other, disturbing those who need more time to reflect.

What are the functions of silence when we’re together with others?

  1. The first function is linking in which silence binds people together such as a “moment of silence,” a silence during prayer, or a silence after someone makes an inappropriate remark.
  2. The second function is an affecting function in which the silence has an effect on the others in the room that might communicate indifference, dislike, or coldness.
  3. A third type of silence is the revelational function of silence by which people show they don’t know what to say or cannot provide an appropriate response.
  4. A fourth function of silence is judgmental, which may indicate approval or disapproval to what has been said. In group settings, this can be seen as ‘‘silence as admission’’ by not responding to an individual or a type of silent protests.
  5. The last function of silence is activation in which a group member may be silent while choosing words before speaking. The impression might be that a group member is quiet and doing nothing, but in reality the group member is pondering what to say and how to respond.

Learning Group Leadership: An Experiential Approach, Jeffrey A. Kottler & Matt Englar-Carlson’s summary from Dennis Kurzon’s paper Towards a typology of silence

Any of these five functions could be relevant when we observe silence at a meeting. When we have not requested silence, it’s important to notice when it happens, figure out what might be going on, and respond appropriately. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced when working with groups have been when silence erupts unexpectedly. When this happens, it’s often good to ask the group what they think is going on, rather than papering over the silence with words.

Sometimes, letting silence grow for a while is the right thing to do. Not only does this emphasize that something significant may be going on, but it also gives us more time to think about how we want to respond to it. That’s why we need to become comfortable with silence at meetings.

Hat tip to Adriano Pianesi‘s blog post “The silence of the staff. Kiss of death of group dynamics roles or not?” {October, 2017: no longer available} which inspired this post.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ko_an