ContemplationFrom the perspective of organisational health, there’s an increasing focus on the emotional intelligence associated with leaders and their teams.

When you look at Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence, you will see a continual reference to the importance of a focused silence: imagine that… a team meeting with silence involved – no mindless chatter, no space-filling, no clicking of laptop keypads… silence.

The thing is, silence can be painful.

The common (ironically, unspoken) argument against a silence is that it feels uncomfortable: it becomes awkward and this can cause anxiety in the room where someone folds first and succumbs to the pressure to speak.

Research in 2012 by Drs. Michael Bittman (University of New England) and Mark Sipthorp (Australian Institute of Family Studies) argued that “the need for noise and the struggle with silence is a learnt behavior.”

As a Generation X guy, my memories are of the TV and / or radio always being on – background chatter is there during our formative years. When all is said and done, we can’t blame social media for having a distracted brain.

Embrace the silence

[pullquote]Mia: Don’t you hate that?
Vincent: Hate what?
Mia: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit? In order to be comfortable?
Vincent: I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Mia: That’s when you know you found somebody really special, when you can just shut the hell up for a minute, and comfortably share silence.
(Pulp Fiction)[/pullquote]
So what drives the need for something to fill the silence?

  • Continuous background nice has created a norm that serves to make it’s absence (silence) feel strange;
  • Unexpected silence can invoke a sense of nervousness (where did that come from and why?!);
  • There is an assumption that noise = busy and, therefore, silence suggests inactivity;
  • We over-analyse – and so, in the silence, our mind races and churns and spins; and
  • We feel that we are there to ‘solve & fix’ instead of sometimes accepting that we can contemplate rather than mend

Do you recognise any of these? Have you got others to add to the list?

[color-box]On November 11, I was midway through a mentoring session with a local government director and the clock struck 11:00 – a time for two minutes’ silence as we show our respect to people defending the rights of people in various countries (in past and current conflicts).

In that moment, we had complete silence – no electronic devices, phone calls or conversation – the only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall.

What was obvious after this time was how different the dynamic of the conversation was – there was a re-energised feeling to the time left and it was obvious that the client was more reflective in her thinking.[/color-box]

Here’s the thing: if we can accept that ‘talking’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘engaging’ then silence is a fantastic management tool.

Some of the benefits of applied silence include:

  • Encourages a sense of being ‘centred’ as people refocus themselves;
  • Disrupts the routine of meetings and encourages agile thinking (adaptability);
  • Offers an opportunity to explore active listening;
  • Some people’s communication and thinking styles are more reserved and welcome the chance for contemplation;
  • Your colleagues may prefer to observe than speak – and silence is a way to connect with them;
  • Meetings are time bound and can race along – sometimes without pause for thought;
  • Conversations can move along too quickly, or in too scattered of a manner; and
  • Sometimes people are wanting to talk, but not finding a chance to ‘get a word in’

After a 1-2 minute silence, as head of the meeting, invite each person around the table to state a key understanding / key learning / key action that they will take away (allowing everyone the chance to speak) and then move on to the next agenda point and the final half of the meeting.

Think about the power of silence in your next meeting, and use it wisely.

When we use silence strategically, it can be a powerful collaboration and communication tool whilst building your team’s emotional intelligence.

Contact Neil to discuss emotional intelligence and leadership in your organisation.

Two Minutes’ Silence