Why are we uncomfortable with silence in conversations?
In my work as a leadership coach — and my experience as a human who interacts with others daily — I’ve noticed that most of us are uncomfortable with silence in conversations. It can feel awkward and we try to avoid it.
It was a little difficult to pinpoint why, but I think it’s because:
- Our culture has trained us to associate talking with confidence and charisma
- When there’s silence, we feel more pressure to say something “brilliant” or “insightful”
- We think silence might cause the other person to judge us or notice our imperfections [cue our inner critic!]
- Talking gives us a sense of control, whereas silence feels unpredictable
So what do we typically do to avoid moments of silence in conversations? We end up filling space with more talking, even if we don’t have anything relevant or meaningful to say.
What if, instead, we understood the power of silence?
What if we were able to be more comfortable with it? Leaving some silence in conversations can have lots of benefits. It’s why negotiators and salespeople are actually trained to leverage silence as a communication strategy.
"Silence is one of the great arts of conversation."
Marcus Tullius Cicero
A little bit of silence in conversations can…
Allow you to process what someone just said: If you can pause a couple beats after someone finishes talking, rather than jumping in right away with another comment or question, this’ll help you fully absorb what the other person said. It also enables you to listen better in the moment since there’s not as much pressure to start thinking about what you’re gonna say next.
Enable you to think of better questions: Moments of silence give you the chance to be more thoughtful about the next question you want to ask. Just a brief pause can enable you to craft a much better question – one that’s more open-ended, concise, and powerful. I’ve observed the impact of this while teaching the art of question-asking to students learning coaching skills. The difference between an ill-formed question and a thoughtful one can be huge.
Slow down the pace: Sometimes conversations can end up at a rushed or frenetic pace. This is especially true when emotions are involved, or when you have limited time to talk. But a faster pace of discussion will often lessen connection, discourage good listening, and increase the likelihood of rash decision making. If one person leaves a little bit of silence before responding, it’ll help both individuals shift into a slower cadence.
Help discussions go deeper: Once you can let go of the need to always respond right away or fill every space after another person stops talking, you’ll discover that interesting things happen. One of the most impactful things that occurs is that the person you’re conversing with has the chance to share more deeply. The added space allows them to open up further and share what’s under the surface. These below-the-surface thoughts are often the most important or meaningful aspects of a topic to discuss.
Communicate greater confidence: This is a bit counter to what you’ve probably been conditioned to think, but leaving some silence in conversations can actually convey a quiet confidence. Because most people are uncomfortable with it, showing that you’re ok with holding moments of silence demonstrates a unique level of self-assuredness.