Should you worry about silence in your meetings?
Many people, especially Americans as those familiar with several cultures tell me, are uncomfortable with silence in a meeting. Oftentimes, a silence tempts you to start talking – to fill the silence. Resist this temptation.
Silences may have different causes and meanings. The group may be considering a point that was made. The group may be tired, confused, bored, or hungry. Their biorhythms may be kicking in – you know, as with the mid-afternoon sluggishness.
What should you do? Ask the group what is happening. You might say, “It’s quiet – are you all thinking or just wondering what to say?” If you are comfortable with humor, you might say, “Usually, our problem is that we all speak at once! Now what’s going on?” Then wait for an answer. Again, you will be tempted to keep talking. Don’t. Let people tell you what’s happening.
If the silence continues, you might give the group several options. “Well, we could review what we’ve already covered on this topic and see what makes sense as a next step. On the other hand, we could go around the table and have each person offer their point of view on the subject. Alternatively, we could take a break, get some caffeine, and come back and start up again. Which course of action seems most appropriate to you?”
If you are a moderator or chairperson of the meeting, you may be very sensitive to the silence. Nevertheless, frequently, the participants are feeling very busy thinking about the discussion, so they do not experience the silence with the same intensity that you do. Be patient. Train yourself to wait. The words will begin again!