Alma Deutscher is about to do something brilliant.
The 12-year-old is seated at the piano, a big smile across her face. Next to her stands longtime journalist Scott Pelley, who has come to interview Alma for the television show 60 Minutes.
"Tell me how this works," says Pelley.
Alma explains the game: Pelley is to pick four musical notes out of a hat, completely at random.
"And then," says Alma, "I'm going to improvise a piece [of music] based on them."
Pelley does just as asked, providing Alma with four index cards, each with a musical note printed on them. After playing (and singing) each note, Alma asks for a few moments.
And then she sits.
... And thinks some more.
In all, Alma sits in total silence for about 40 seconds. She is completely immersed in her thoughts, having shut out the outside world. As she waves her head ever so slightly, you can see the melody developing in her head.
The final result is captivating: The 12-year-old girl proceeds to improvise a sublime piece of music based on those initial four notes.
"Wonderful," exclaims Pelley.
You've just witnessed a virtuoso at work. But you've also witnessed a real-life application of one of the most powerful tools of emotional intelligence:
The rule of awkward silence.
Alma's not the only intelligent person known for mastering this rule. You can find several examples of business leaders who use it liberally, including Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
But what is the rule of awkward silence, exactly? And how can you make it work for you?
What is the rule of awkward silence?
The rule is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer.
Make no mistake, this is no short pause. You might go five, 10, or even 15 seconds (or longer) before offering a response. Which, if you're not used to doing it, will feel very awkward--at first.
Despite her youth, Alma knew how awkward it can be for others when she disappears into her thoughts. If you watch the video, you'll see her actually ask Pelley for permission to think about the four notes first. (Apparently, the 60 Minutes team didn't think watching Alma deep in thought made for interesting television viewing, so the editors overlaid a brief excerpt of Alma's interview over the scene.)
But the awkwardness is all worth it--because the benefits of embracing this rule are immeasurable.
To follow the rule is an excellent way to build emotional intelligence: the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. Like Alma, you can use it to delve deep into your thoughts, get in touch with your emotions, and create.
When trying to solve problems, it can help you get to root causes more effectively, helping you brainstorm better solutions.
Or you can simply use it to help you answer questions more deeply, and with greater thought.
This is an especially useful skill in today's world, which has grown dependent on written communication like email and instant messaging. Let's break down why.
Using awkward silence in written communication
How quickly does it take for you to respond to a message on Slack, WhatsApp, or other IM services?
Most feel the need to respond right away or within a few minutes. If they don't, they start feeling overwhelming pressure, as if they're somehow being irresponsible or letting their communication partner down.
But allow me to let you in on a little secret:
You don't have to respond right away.
In fact, it's better when you don't.
Because your quickest response isn't typically your best response. It's based on a temporary emotion that's bound to change.
You might say yes to a request because you're in an especially good mood, only to regret it later.
Or you might respond negatively because you're in a bad mood--and regret that, too.
Other times, you might want to respond right away just so you don't forget to do it later ...
But, most often, your response will be better if you think it through first. Getting into the habit of not responding right away helps you do that.
But won't the other person get frustrated when they see I've read their message and haven't replied?
Maybe. And that's OK--that's why it's called an "awkward" silence.
No worries--there's an easy solution for this. (And it doesn't involve turning off "read receipts"--that's weak.)
If you're dealing with someone who's used to getting a quick reply from you, just let them know that you're in the middle of something, or you need to give it some thought, and that you'll respond soon.
Once you do that once or twice, you've trained them to not expect immediate responses from you anymore.
So, the next time someone pressures you to answer a question, or you put that pressure on yourself, resist the temptation to cave in.
Instead, embrace the rule of awkward silence. Take whatever time you need to respond.
You may not end up composing a work of art ... but the results may surprise you nonetheless.