Listen to the audio version of this post here.
Seems like we’re always rushing, doesn’t it?
Even in these days when we’re not literally going much of anywhere, there’s this sense of pressure to get things done, to respond immediately, to move the project along.
Think about the language we use. We’re forever jumping on a call. We’re sorry about running late. We have to hop on a Zoom meeting.
And then there’s Zoom itself. Before it was a virtual meeting platform, zoom meant “move or travel very quickly.”
Keeping up that kind of pace doesn’t allow much time for slow, deliberate, thoughtful response—to anything.
Unless we make the time for it.
Inc. is out with a piece about some very smart, successful guys who do exactly that. Maybe you’ve heard of them? Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are known for embracing what Inc.’s Justin Bariso calls “the rule of awkward silence.”
What’s the rule?
Here’s how Bariso explains it: “Faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer.”
And this is no short pause. Bariso says it involves taking ten or twenty seconds, maybe longer, to think things through before responding.
All three of the tech tycoons are noted for taking their time in meetings, interviews, even in presentations for good-sized audiences.
At Amazon, Bezos often begins meetings with everybody sitting in silence, reading a background memo, pondering, jotting down some notes. The “silent start,” they call it. It’s designed to make sure people read the background material and give it some serious thought before a conversation begins.
Elon Musk? He’s known for falling silent when he hears a challenging question. One colleague describes Musk silently staring off into space—you can see the wheels turning as he considers his response.
And for years, Tim Cook has had a reputation for “long, uncomfortable pauses” in meetings.
Of course, we don’t all have the kind of power or money these guys have. Maybe we feel pressure to respond quickly. We know someone’s waiting for an answer and it’s our job to give it to them. So, we jump right in with the first thought that comes to mind.
Or, we have their attention for the moment, but we are very aware that it could vanish in a flash, so whatever we have to say, we’d best spit it out quickly.
I agree with Bariso that there’s a better way.
I’m not crazy, though, about calling that way the “rule of awkward silence.”
First of all, I’m not that fond of rules. How would it be if instead of instituting some kind of regulation, we think of these silent moments as a practice? A way of being that we can develop.
And here’s the other thing. Why does everybody always label silence awkward?
I am constantly encouraging clients to pause as they speak. Even a brief moment of silence can clarify their meaning. Enhance understanding. Convey their confidence and give weight to their words.
I get pushback about the pause. It’s awkward, they say. There’s that word again.
What is it about a bit of quiet that makes people so uncomfortable?
The Inc. piece points out that a pause gives a person a chance to think more deeply about what to say and how to say it. To get to the heart of the issue. To give a more thoughtful answer.
That’s all true. And it also gives our listeners a chance to think. That may be unsettling for some of us. (Wait! They’re thinking? What are they thinking about me?)
If we can get past that, though, the pause is really an opportunity to deepen our connection with the people we’re talking to. To take our communication to a whole different level. To move past the blahblahblah and get to the heart of things. Why would we resist that?
Seems to me this is about our fear.
It’s fear of being seen—and heard—as we really are. Fear of dropping our verbal armor and letting people in.
What if you leaned into that fear? You don’t have to chase it away or cover it up. What if you just noticed … yeah, silence feels a little scary. And it’s okay.
Give it a try anyway. You might find that what you say makes a much bigger impact when you say less of it.
You’ll notice that you can sound calmer, more self-assured. And that gives you more impact.
After all, apart from “awkward,” the other word people use to describe a pause is … dramatic.
Try that on for size.
Maybe we can shift our thinking and consider those breaks in the dialogue (or monologue) a way to emphasize or highlight what we’re saying. The pause adds just enough drama to capture attention and keep it. Nothing awkward about that.
I’ll pause here so you can post a comment about your experience with the awkward—or is it dramatic?—pause.
Thank you, Catherine, for this excellent article. I am very good at pausing before sending an email. But in person, my mind is often five steps ahead of someone who has not yet finished their sentence, and I am preparing a response so I can say something when they stop talking. This is an excellent reminder to listen, pause, consider what was said and then consider the response. I also like the idea of starting a meeting with silence, to review information that was sent out ahead of time. When days are filled with back-to-back meetings, this assures that everyone can take a moment to center themselves in the new space – even if it is virtual – and attend to what is happening there.
I like the idea of the Silent Start too, Dawn. So often, we show up for one meeting fresh from the last one, without time to prepare or shift mental gears. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting seems like it would make the whole thing more productive.