Imagine that you’ve just finished a presentation. To your team. To your boss. To some colleagues. You’re done and you ask for questions. But, all you get back is silence. Echoing and uncomfortable silence.
Not all silences are the same.
Silence is a form of communicating. And different silences have different meanings. In order to get the conversation going again, you have to discern the subtext – the message & meaning hidden in the silence.
Here are 8 flavors of silence that I have encountered in over 25 years of facilitating and attending meetings along with their subtext and the actions you can take.
Silence #1: I don’t agree. But, I’m afraid to tell you.
Subtext: When there’s an obvious power imbalance in the conversation, this is a common meaning of silence. You’re the boss and they may be afraid to push against your authority. So, even though they disagree – they’re staying quiet.
Your Action: Make yourself vulnerable. Make it clear that what you’re proposing is a first draft. Ask people to point out what’s missing, what’s off base, what’s flawed in your thinking. And when they do – thank them and ask follow up questions to learn more about their ideas. Do not defend your position.
Silence #2: I have another idea – but doubt you’ll listen.
Subtext: Again, if you have authority and have presented your position with a lot of enthusiasm and zeal, the other person may hesitate to offer an alternative view as they think you’re mind is made up.
Your Action: Be honest about whether you’re open to ideas or not. You may be willing to modify your thinking. Be clear about what’s non-negotiable. Then, ask for feedback. When you get it, ask clarifying questions such as: “How does what you’re suggesting fit with what I proposed?” Don’t launch into a rehash of your presentation.
Silence #3: I have no idea what you’re talking about – but don’t want to offend you by asking a question.
Subtext: Even when you try to be clear – you may be confusing. The other person may have heard the words you said – but can’t figure out what you’re trying to communicate. They don’t want to say that you’re making no sense. But, that’s their experience.
Your Action: If they’re looking dazed and confused – take responsibility. Say: “I don’t think I’ve been clear. What, if anything, have I communicated?” Find out what they think you’re talking about. If they’re not getting it – it’s your responsibility, You’re the communicator. Re-focus yourself and simplify your message. Boil your position down to 1-3 key ideas.
Silence #4: I’m too upset to even talk. I need some time to cool down and gather myself together.
Subtext: Something in what you said has pushed a hot button. The person is upset and rather then react, is choosing to contain their emotions. They’re not saying anything, but their body language is likely screaming – flushed face, clenched jaw, narrowing eyes.
Your Action: Keep breathing. Breathe full, slow breaths. Modulate your own physiology so you don’t shift into the fight or flight response. Take one or two full, slow breaths. This will only take about 15 seconds. Then, say: “I think something I’ve said really doesn’t work for you. Am I right?” Then, stay relaxed and listen if they rant and rave a bit.
Silence #5: I haven’t really been listening. And, I’m not really interested enough to ask you to go over it again.
Subtext: This is kind of the opposite of #4. You’re off target. You haven’t hit a hot button. You haven’t even connected. They’re not engaged.
Your Action: Like #4, it’s important to keep breathing. This isn’t the time to push your case. Shift gears, if appropriate to focus on what matters to them. As they reveal their goals you may find a way to reconnect back to your point of view.
Silence #6: I’m ready to pounce – but don’t want to be the first to attack.
Subtext: This happens in meetings. The silence is a prelude to the attack. People are waiting for someone else to draw blood. Then, they’ll eagerly jump into the fray and point to all the flaws in your position.
Your Action: This is a tough situation. Some individuals and teams haven’t learned the difference between being aggressive and being assertive. For them, every communication is a contest. Your challenge is to stay centered. To focus on the core of your message and to go past their attacks to identify the useful ideas they offer.
Silence #7: I’ve got an unformed concern – and can’t quite put it into words.
Subtext: Sometimes people have a hard time articulating what bothers them. Something’s not fitting but they can’t say what. They’ve got an uneasy feeling about what your suggesting, but don’t exactly know why.
Your Action: When you see them struggling, lend a hand. Consider your ideas from their point of view. What might make them uncomfortable? What might they object to? What might be threatening? Then, say: “If I were you, I might be concerned about . . . Do I have that right?” Help them get their objections on the table and then work collaboratively to address them.
Silence #8 I’m thinking. What seems like silence to you is actually filled with thinking for me.
Subtext: People have their own thinking/speaking rhythm. Some take more processing time before they’re ready to speak.
Your Action: Follow their rhythm. Adjust your pace. Express appreciation that they’ve taken time to reflect and seriously consider what you’ve said.