We’ve all been through this: You’re in the middle of a meeting and suddenly there’s a lull in the conversation. An awkward silence. A few seconds later everybody leaps in to immediately fill that moment of silence.
Silence unnerves us. People feel uncomfortable with long gaps in conversations. They’re sometimes seen as a sign of anxiety and can create stress in the room.
But the truth is silence can be powerful. It’s the pause in a conversation that gives you time to reflect and structure your thoughts.
A long pause is also a powerful tool in public speaking. Former US President Barack Obama, for instance, is a master of using pauses to make a point dramatically and effectively.
Let’s take a step back and look at why the long pause is important. Sometimes, people take time to think deeply during a discussion. At other times, they could be simply processing the information they receive. On some occasions, people simply might not have a response—and that’s perfectly fine, too.
Silence can also signify that people are reflecting or trying to put themselves in your shoes. They could be thinking of various possibilities or looking at an issue from multiple perspectives.
Most importantly, during those moments of silence, people might be structuring their thoughts, shaping their responses, and choosing the right words. Thinking takes time—and sometimes pauses in conversations give people space and time to think comfortably and formulate a clear argument. Pausing to go silent also allows you to slow down, breathe, recharge, and think if you are on the right track.
We all value and appreciate people who think before they speak. Harsha Bhogle, my favorite cricket commentator, beautifully encapsulated the power of the pause in an Indian Express tribute to Richie Benaud, one of the greatest cricket commentators of all times. “Pause is also a statement of comfort and of control. You pause for a moment when you know you own the next,” he wrote.
How can you and your teams benefit from the pauses in your interactions?
First, let go of the belief that talking more means communicating more. It doesn’t. We learn languages and the social etiquette of conversation, but we are rarely taught how to pause a conversation and keep it going.
Use the pause to let people process and reflect. One of the most damaging things we learned in school was that the first students to raise their hands were the best students.
Similarly, as working professionals, we have a habit of quickly responding the moment we are asked about something. Some managers are also quick to reprimand people if they don’t answer instantly.
If you give your team members a brief moment to think and answer, you will see how much clearer and more articulate their responses will be. Tell your teams to take a moment to reflect and then respond—whether it’s in face-to-face or virtual meetings.
The more articulate your team members are, the less time and energy you will have to spend understanding what they are saying. A few seconds of pause can prevent several minutes of confusion and chaos.
Lastly, use the pause to control the pace of discussions. Group discussions for brainstorming ideas and making decisions are not like escalator rides—going at the same pace. You need to pace them out and control their speed much like a car.
Emotions, tempers, reasoning, biases, and energy fly high during such meetings. You have to allow the group to recalibrate, re-align, and recuperate during such discussions.
Use momentary pauses. Tell people to go silent and think deeply. This is different from bio breaks. These are pauses for letting people form their arguments and align their thoughts without derailing the discussion.
Harsha Bhogle summarizes this thought very well in a 22 Yarns podcast conversation with sports commentator Gaurav Kapur: “Sometimes, we are in such a hurry to get the next words out, that we don’t have the time to think about what that word is going to be…When you own the pause, you own the next moment…But sometimes in our hurry, we don’t allow ourselves to own the next moment, because we are afraid of this one.”
So don’t be afraid of pausing and being silent. Great conversations are as much about the pauses as they are about the words you speak. Go forth and own your pauses!
Present your ideas clearly and precisely with our Online Speaking Course, Speaking Effectively, under the Communicate Habit. Exhibit confidence by enrolling for our online courses from Harappa Education. Explore topics and skills such as Speaking Skills, Oratory Skills, Verbal Communication, Nonverbal Communication, and the Types of Communication from our Harappa Diaries blog section and communicate information effectively.
Nishant is a Senior Specialist, Curriculum at Harappa Education. He is an incoming Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University who nurtures a dream of making world-class higher education and healthcare accessible to everyone in India.
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