Five steps to getting comfortable with awkward silences

By Heather Campbell

What’s your personal memories of the Covid lockdowns? For all there are many shared memories – the masks, the uncertainty, the call to protect the NHS – we’ll also have our moments that are unique to us.

It’s silence for me. One evening in particular. My husband had taken our dogs out for their pre-bedtime walk. When he came back, he called me to come out to….listen to the silence. I live in the country and evenings are usually quiet. But that lockdown night, I realised that there is usually some distant hum of traffic or activity that simply wasn’t there. It brought a stillness to the silence that has stayed with me since.

Silence can be profound and can move us deeply. It can be peaceful. It can be disturbing. Not just the deep silence I experienced that evening, but silence that is part of everyday communication. Silence can mean different things and many people are uncomfortable with the uncertainty it brings.

Handling silence during conversations is one of those topics you’ll have covered on many leadership workshops. You’ll have been told that it’s good to allow silence in conversations. You’ll most likely have practised dealing with silence in some kind of workshop exercise.

But I know from my work in coaching leaders, this doesn’t necessarily mean you feel skilled in handling it. That’s why, in this series of emails re-examining the fundamentals of effective leadership communication, I want to share some tips on how to get comfortable with silence.

Let’s get clear that not all silences are the same. There’s the ‘Who’ll blink first’ silence typified by the person sitting opposite you, arms folded, staring at you in a not exactly friendly manner. There’s the awkward, ‘we’re standing here at a networking event and have run out of polite small talk’ silence. There’s even the brief ‘oops, we’ve just started talking over one another and are both now pausing at the same time’ silence.

These types of silence aren’t the subject of today’s email – I’ll cover them in future because they deserve attention too. Today I’m talking about the silence that occurs during sensitive or emotional interactions, or when you’ve asked a really challenging or thought-provoking question. It’s the silence that happens when the other person is thinking inwardly. These are the silences that seem to disconcert leaders most.

Many leaders find this kind of silence difficult to handle because, truth be told, they’re a bit worried about what the other person is going to say or do when they stop being silent. Will they be emotional? Will they say something I don’t want to hear? Are they sitting there silent because I’ve confused them? This doubt isn’t comfortable for us and so, even though we know we should wait for the other person to speak, we go for the good old ‘I’ll talk to fill the gap’ approach. I get it – it’s tempting to just release the uncertainty.

How can you handle these silences differently?

It begins by understanding that they occur because the other person is reflecting on their response or focussing on controlling their emotions or deciding whether or not to share what’s on their mind. Their minds are busy with thoughts – they aren’t even aware they’re sitting in silence because in their heads, they aren’t.

Within this context, here are the top tips I share with leaders that help them to sit comfortably in these moments.

1. Take time to observe the other person’s behaviour

Sometimes we’re worried that the other person is silent because we’ve confused them, or they’ve lost interest or they’ve somehow nodded off mid conversation…so how can we know if the other person is really taking some time out to think?

The best way is to notice where they’re looking – if they’re looking down and to the side, they’re most likely concentrating on the thoughts in their own head. They’re actually not thinking about you at all at that moment. If you could hear their thoughts, you’d find a busy internal conversation.

Cutting off eye contact with you indicates that they are cutting you out of the conversation so that they can focus on their own inner dialogue.

Interrupting them in this is not helpful!

On the other hand, if they’re looking at you quizzically or aggressively, it might be worth checking in if there’s something they’re not sure about or want to say. The eye contact shows that they are still engaged with YOU.

2. Ground yourself

Having ascertained that the other person is busy with their inner dialogue, focus on yourself.

At risk of sounding a bit ‘out there’, start by grounding yourself. For example, place your feet flat on the floor. Be aware of the solidity of the seat you are sitting on. This helps you to feel secure and supported and is why it’s often used as a core element in meditation practice and therapy sessions.

Set down a pen or anything else that you can tap the table or any other surface with. Ignore your mobile phone.

3. Take two or three deep breaths

When we are feeling unsettled, our breathing tends to become more shallow which indicates to our emotional brain that we’re under some kind of threat. This will increase the sense of discomfort.

In contrast, two or three deep breaths tells our emotional brain that all is well and we are in control.

Don’t keep going with too many of these deep breaths, of course, or you’ll hyperventilate 😊.

4. Look down and slightly to the side so that you avoid staring at the other person

When the other person is sitting in their silent place, they also want this space to be private. You will increase this sense of privacy if you aren’t looking at them.

Don’t worry that they’ll think you’re ignoring them, they aren’t focussed on you anyway.

5. Mind your thoughts

One of the things that makes it difficult to deal with silence is that our head fills with the wrong thoughts – things like ‘I wonder what they’re thinking’, or ‘I wonder if I should speak again’, or ‘I really need to get a move on with this’…and so on.

These thoughts tend to leak out in micro behaviours – those little fidgety movements that come into play – or those verbal interruptions that we know we shouldn’t make.

Instead, thinking something like ‘I’m comfortable with this’ or ‘I know you need time to work things through in your own mind’ are examples of thoughts that fill your head with something that is more appropriate to the situation in hand. Or, if this sounds too “touchy feely”, try to recall the last five things you did before you left the house this morning or before you came into this meeting.

The key here is to give your mind something to focus on that leaves you with a busy head too.

When the other person does break the silence and begin to share their thoughts, follow stay grounded, take another couple of deep breaths and listen with a genuine desire to understand their perspective. You don’t need to rush to say anything, to reassure them or to defend yourself. Allowing the other person time to speak not only shows that you respect and value them, it also gives you time to understand what matters to them. You can then decide on the most appropriate response.

Following these five steps in those awkward silences will help you to approach them with greater confidence and comfort. And, of course, they’re good practices that will help you handle any tough moments in conversations – not just those that are filled with the sound of silence.

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  1. I especially appreciated this one. It provides an insight into how silence can break down communication, and the components required to get over that wall – mainly mutual respect.

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