It isn't just about emotional intelligence and knowing when to just stop talking so that you don't damage relationships with your co-workers, as I've written about before.
This kind of silence is really hard for many of us, myself included.
A decade ago, I had my first VP level job in a pretty big global company. One of my job responsibilities was to facilitate top leadership meetings with the C-suite and SVPs related to their leadership team effectiveness. How they functioned as a leadership team through planned and unplanned transformation was going to make or break the outcomes they were trying to achieve.
These meetings were frequently challenging in terms of the content we had to put on the table as well as the personalities and individual politics that existed.
I remember after one difficult meeting, I met with my boss for feedback. She was a member of the C-suite and a meeting participant.
In her direct way, she told me that I did a good job but that I talked too much. I was filling the blanks in for people when the conversations got hard. She finished by telling me that I probably didn't like silence very much but that I needed to get more comfortable with it. She left me with one sentence I've played in my head for years now:
"Let there be awkward silence."
I took the advice in the spirit it was intended and have continued to apply it with good results. It still doesn't come naturally to me and isn't comfortable for me. I still need that mental prompt.
As with many things, I wondered about what was going on here from a science perspective. And as with many things, there is some science behind why I felt (and still feel) the way I did (and still do), and why that silence works in terms of generating ideas and stimulating the right conversations.
The Science of Us Social Humans
There have been a good number of research studies on awkward silence that have generated some interesting findings. Participants in one Dutch study within the last several years said that they felt more anxious, rejected, and less self-assured after some amount of prolonged silence in a difficult discussion.
Other studies confirm similar results in different settings, essentially leading us back to the foundation of human beings as social creatures.
To boil it down to its most basic levels, silence in challenging situations essentially represents rejection in our minds. And rejection from a social group a long time ago meant bad things for us as individuals.
That was certainly the feeling I had in some of those difficult leadership meetings I had to lead years ago. When I took my boss's advice and tried to let there by awkward silence in subsequent meetings, I'd watch them all staring at me wanting them to just say something so I didn't feel like a fool ultimately to be ostracized from the team.
The good news from the research is that I wasn't just an insecure new VP. Most of us feel that way after some prolonged silence. We want the conversation so that we feel connected.
The Science of Four Seconds
What does the science say about how long a "prolonged" silence actually is before it becomes awkward for us? In many cultures, including the United States, it is just four seconds. It is even higher in other cultures based on how much any particular culture values silence.
But even though four seconds may not feel like much, in a group when nobody says anything for a few vital seconds, it can feel like a painfully long eternity. And that is precisely why it works.
Somebody wants to break that silence because of the social anxiety that silence causes. As long as it isn't you breaking that silence and filling in the blanks for someone else, that silence becomes critical because it forces people to reflect longer and more deeply.
One Easy Tactic You Can Use
Through the years, I have learned one simple approach to make this work. I figure out logical places in any presentation I am making or discussion I am leading to ask the group about their perspectives on what I have just discussed or presented.
I then tell them that I'm going to shut up. And I do. I count to ten in my head. Not surprisingly, I have never had one case where someone didn't say something before I got to eight even though it still feels like forever in my mind. Then the conversation usually flows just fine from there.