Active listening--that is, being able to listen to another person with full attention instead of thinking of how to respond as they talk--is a soft skill that every good leader needs in their back pocket.

But what if intentionally creating some silence in a conversation was your sneaky strategy for taking active listening to the next level?

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio journalist and host Angela Davis at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair in August, Joshua Johnson, host of the 1A radio talk show, revealed how creating silence on purpose is a powerful tool for directing deep conversations. In the interview, he explained how famed journalist Mike Wallace used people's dislike of silence and the psychological tendency to want to fill it to his advantage.

Wallace would ask a question, and the person would give the answer, and if he would not talk when they finished talking, they would keep talking, because the silence got uncomfortable.

"When you are an interviewer, [...] the way that you lead is by listening. [...] And until I [as the interviewer] ask the next question, you're not done," Johnson said. As the interviewer, his job is to lead the conversation and he does that by "making sure that the onus is on you to fill the space completely," and not just to say the most, but to "say the best." 

Put another way, silence encourages people to talk, and if you choose where to allow silence well, you can get remarkably more informative responses, keeping control of the conversation in a respectful way.

Applying Silence to Your Office Leadership

Even though you might not be a famous journalist, there are plenty of times where Wallace's approach can translate to the office. Probably the starkest example would be in hiring, where you're interviewing candidates and want to extract beyond the typical, superficial canned response.

But it's also a technique to use when you're learning and want juicier, priceless information from an expert, or when you're trying to get to the heart of a conflict. It's also something you can pull out during marketing or product development to learn crucial details about what your customers or testers really think of your design or approach. And as you network, you can get a much better sense of what others are trying to do, what they're accomplishing, what they need and how you can cooperate.

Of course, as Johnson points out, to do this well, you have to overcome the knee-jerk reaction to respond with emotion. If you don't do this, the person you're talking to doesn't have a chance to truly finish their thought completely, meaning that you then don't have the best picture of what to ask next.

In this sense, great conversation is about keeping slower, rational thought at the helm rather than quick, automatic thought, and being willing to follow the other person wherever they happen to take you in their response. The minute you jump in based on a hot feeling and stop listening, you've lost control of the discussion.

The current view of active listening tends to portray it as a way to bring balance into a conversation. But learning to use strategic silence is very much a way to direct others in a positive way. It encourages greater transparency and information exchange, even as you stay in control. Embrace not saying a word, because it's in those moments that you likely are at your very best.