“Well, this is … awkward.“
I had just asked a question in a meeting I was running. It was a challenging question, so the responses weren’t exactly forthcoming.
As silence filled the air, the tension started to thicken. I was tempted to fill the gap with my own words, my own thoughts. Tempted to move people into a direction. Any direction.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I allowed everyone to take their time. The result was amazing: a genuinely thoughtful discussion, with tons of ideas that (eventually) began to flow freely.
This was a result of following the rule of awkward silence.
The rule of awkward silence is based on principles of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions. But how does it work? And how can this rule help you get the best out of your teams?
What is the rule of awkward silence?
The rule of awkward silence states:
When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply–for 5, 10, or even 15 seconds or more–about how you want to answer.
I’ve written a lot about how you can use the rule of awkward silence to get control over your emotions, to help you think critically, and to build confidence. You can even find a perfect case study in a video from over 20 years ago, where Steve Jobs uses a pause of about 18 seconds to answer to criticism.
But just as you can use the rule of awkward silence for yourself, you can also use it to get the best out of others–as the opening story illustrates.
In that meeting, if I had given into temptation and started speaking, I would likely have done one or more of the following:
- Swayed the direction of the discussion
- Stifled critical thinking
- Prevented shy or reticent individuals from sharing their thoughts
Over time, I realized this was exactly what I was doing when I spoke up, filling those “awkward silences” with my own voice, instead of allowing others to find theirs. And it took lots of concentrated effort to keep myself from doing it again and again.
Many of today’s most successful business leaders know the value of awkward silence.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos takes up to 30 minutes at the beginning of meetings to have his team read printed memos in complete quiet. This allows those in the meeting time to fully read and absorb the memo, and then to formulate solid thoughts.
At Apple, Tim Cook is known for his long, uncomfortable pauses–when “all you hear is the sound of him tearing the wrapper of the energy bars he constantly eats,” according to a 2008 Fortune article.
And if your meeting includes a negotiation? Then silence can also be used to your advantage–as illustrated in this 2021 paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Author Jared Curhan, faculty director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Behavioral Research Lab, found that silences of between 3.5 and 9.5 seconds greatly increased the potential for a breakthrough in negotiation.
So, the next time you lead a meeting, conduct a brainstorm, or need to negotiate, remember the rule of awkward silence. Make sure that everyone knows extended periods of quiet are not only OK, they’re valued–because they will contribute to getting the best out of everyone.
After all, silence is golden, but only if you know how to use it.