Do you notice the sound of silence?

How comfortable are you with silence in a conversation? How common is it for you?

If you’ve grown up in North American culture, you probably have very little silence when you’re in a conversation with someone and chances are pretty good you’re not really comfortable with it either.

Studies have found the North American tolerance for silence during a conversation is one or two full seconds, at most, whereas in Japan it’s 8.2 seconds and almost as long in Finland.

Can you think of a time when there was an 8 second gap in a conversation and it didn’t turn you into panic mode trying to think of something to fill the space?

The thing is, space isn’t inherently a bad thing. The concept of “dead air” and silence being equated with a lack of conversation skills is a social construction – nothing more.

In fact, not only is silence not a bad thing, it’s can be a really good thing.

With silence we can gain wisdom, develop greater self control and demonstrate selflessness. It also lets people reflect, think deeply, say things they might otherwise hold back.

You may have witnessed this in negotiations or the last time you bought a car or a house.

People who sell large ticket items are often aware of the value of silence. A salesperson who outlines the benefits of their product and then shares the price might hear from their potential client, “Hmmm, it’s very expensive.” A simple, “I understand,” followed by a space is often met with the potential client saying, “But it’s gorgeous, I’ll take it.”

I’m not suggesting any one culture is better than another but when it comes to silence, the Japanese are on the right track. Silence really is golden — particularly when you allow silence into the conversations with people you lead.

How much silence do you have now?

Take some time this week to observe yourself.

Start with one to one conversations.

How much silence are you leaving after you ask a question?

How much before you respond to someone else’s question?

If you pause before answering, are they jumping in with other questions?

What about in group meetings — how much silence is there?

If there isn’t much silence, how much reflection might be happening? Or not?

So how do you bring more silence into your conversations?

Here are a few ideas for how to use silence to bring out the best in your conversations:

  • When you’re in a group meeting, pause, before jumping in. Count to two. Pause when you start speaking, count to two. Pause after asking questions, count to two.
  • When you’re meeting one on one with someone, particularly folks you lead, try asking open-ended questions as we suggested before in this blog. And then count to five. Yep, five. Let the other person take time to reflect before answering. If they haven’t answered by the time you count to five, it likely means you’ve asked a great question and they’re thinking about it — count to five again.
  • Another great technique is to pause after they speak. Ask a question, listen for the answer. Listen to understand, not to respond,. When they’ve concluded their response to you, take a few moments to reflect on what they’ve said. If you’re having a hard time, count again – this time to five or more. Ideally, use this time to think about what they’ve said. Maintain soft eye contact with them* and just reflect. See what happens. You may find they dive back into the conversation with deeper meaning and self-reflection.

*Soft eye contact means maintaining eye contact, without staring. Letting your eyes show you care.

As coaches, we frequently use these techniques in our coaching conversations. This is, in part, to allow ourselves to reflect upon what the client has said, to hear the feeling, the emotion, the deeper sense, but also to see where the client goes. Clients often dig deeper, or start to ask themselves some questions out loud, they themselves start to reflect on what they’ve just said. It’s spectacular — this is often where the “ah-ha” moments happen.

If silence feels awkward and you’re not sure how to maintain it, try asking, “and what else?” or something similar. “How does that make you feel?” “What did you think about that?” These slightly probing but engaging questions, fill the void a little bit, and help the other person to pause and reflect even more.

Coach’s Question

Where could you bring more silence to your conversations? What benefits are you missing in your meetings, and in your conversations with staff, by not allowing silence to do the heavy lifting?

What kind of leader do you want to be?

 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

 

A lot of us don’t sit down and, with intention, decide what kind of leader we want to be. We learn, we lead, and we share. We practice continual improvement and we just work on being better today than we were yesterday.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, please don’t ever stop doing that.

But…

Every single day that we show up and contribute, we’re creating a legacy as the kind of leader we are, for better or for worse.

Whether we’re strategically building towards something we decided with intention or passively and reactively building, our choices and actions every single day are cumulative.

And, not only are we moving either towards or away from the kind of leader we want to be – we’re building our legacy as we go. What we leave behind is our contribution and that contribution is in service to the people we work with and those who follow in our footsteps.

What we leave behind is our contribution and that contribution is in service to the people we work with and those who follow in our footsteps.

How, then, can we actively choose?

How can we be mindful of the kind of leader we’re working towards and the legacy we’ll leave behind?

How can we decide exactly what it is we’d like to shift or change or influence? And how do we decide to be content with who we are?

Here are a few questions to get you thinking about exactly what kind of leader you are and whether or not you’re on track to be the kind of leader you want to be.

If your work were to be described as movement – what would it be?

 

What if, instead of thinking of leadership skills as a personal achievement, we consider them a contribution to a social movement. 

What is at the core of why you do what you do?

Is your leadership movement to help staff to feel empowered? Is it to be the leader who built a flat-organisation? Is there a human-centred cause at the root of the work that fires you up? What’s yours?

Is it to be the leader who built a flat-organisation? Is there a human-centred cause at the root of the work that fires you up? What’s yours?

What daily habits and micro-interactions are contributing to your leadership goals?

 

With health habits, every food choice we make is either neutral, helping, or hurting our health goals whether conscious choices or not.

In that same way, we are either working towards the kind of leader we want to be or not. The micro-choices we make every single day add up to who we are as a leader.

Do you keep your door closed? Do you schedule check-ins? Do you stop and ask your team how they’re doing – even in a moment of stress? How do you respond when you’re dismayed or unhappy?

How much do you delegate and how often do you redirect? Do you frequently run up against deadlines and ask your team to do the same?

What are your core values?

 

What have you noticed are deal-breakers for you in relationships? Is honesty high on your list?

Are there exceptions? What about altruism — putting the greater good ahead of yourself? Are there exceptions to that one?

Organizations sometimes have great definitions of the core values they look for in a leader (George Mason University has a nice succinct list here) — what would your own list look like?

Can you define it?

Coach’s Question:

How will people talk about the impact you had when you move on? What daily actions are contributing to your legacy? How can you start to ensure your daily choices are moving you towards your leadership goals and vision?  

Want better ideas? Ask better questions

If you’re like most of us in the 21st Century, you’re probably looking to be innovative and effective. You, or people around you might be talking about being “disrupters” in your industry.

You and your team might be trying to “do more, with less.” And of course, with access to the internet and a world full of data, that should be getting easier and easier. But, it isn’t getting easier.

You’re drowning in information and the decisions get harder and harder.

So, how in the world do you get to the good ideas? How do you find the information that will be helpful or innovative or groundbreaking? How do you explore that data and find what helps?

Well, like so much of what we talk about in this blog, it’s a simple idea that can be tough to implement – ask better questions.

If you’re a leader, whether by formal title or informal influence, you’re probably going to find asking questions a bit disconcerting. After all, you’ve gotten your title and your influence by having the answers. Now it’s going to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Or is it?

Asking really good questions doesn’t leave people thinking you don’t know anything. In fact, in most cases it leaves people thinking, “Wow, what a great question, she always knows just what to ask to push us to better things.”

So what makes one question better than another?

Ask big questions early on in a project

Why are we doing this? What will success look like? It might surprise you how often you hear wildly divergent answers, from your team or your colleagues, to some of those fundamental ideas — it’s worth exploring them.

Ask some unexpected questions

What if we didn’t have any money, how would we do this? If something major threw us off track on this project, at what point could we say it’s “good enough?”

Ask open-ended questions

Letting go of that need to know the answer comes easier if you try to be really curious. “Tell me more about that… What makes you think that?”

If you struggle with asking curiosity-based questions you can try literally saying silently to yourself, “I’m curious to know…” before asking your question out loud.

“I’m curious to know, how might we do that with the deadlines we face?”

Encourage others to ask questions

One of my mantras when I was leading large groups of people was, “If you come to me with a problem, bring some solutions too.” It was meant to encourage thinking and discussion and sometimes it worked. But, it also left people floundering to find some solutions on their own before even coming to me. That was the opposite of what I wanted.

A better approach, if you’re going to have a mantra like that, is something like, “Come to me with problems and bring some curious and thorny questions we should ask ourselves about it.” That not only starts the conversation with some good questions but also encourages a questioning, thoughtful approach to problem-solving.

Coach’s Question:

What’s holding you back from asking questions, more than giving answers? Is it worth it? What big idea might you uncover if you asked better questions? What challenges are you or your organization dealing with, that might benefit from some big or unexpected questions?