I don’t remember the first time I was told about the power of silence in conversation, but I’m pretty sure it was one of my first management classes. I’ve run into the concept both formally and informally many times since then, and the usual context is somewhat adversarial.
For example, when performing a job interview, if you aren’t that impressed with an answer, wait a few beats. Does the candidate fill the silence? Do they elaborate? And does their answer dig a deeper hole or do they begin to climb out? You can learn a lot with this technique: someone who immediately realizes the impact of their words and tries to work the conversation back in the right direction is showing a great deal of emotional intelligence. Someone who manages the same feat but only after being prompted and guided is in a different place (this may not be a bad thing; it depends on what you’re looking for).
But silence in conversation is a much more nuanced topic than this. It doesn’t have to be adversarial, and instead can be a collaborative technique for encouraging active listening.
For example, imagine someone approaches you, someone you know is nervous about recent changes in the organization. They vaguely express some concern and seem a bit jittery. You could leap right into your canned answer, or you could pause, and wait, and listen some more. Let the moment stretch long enough that they feel the need to fill it, and see what else they say.
Maybe, faced with silence, they’ll say something that will make it more clear what you can do to help them. Do they just want to vent? Are they trying to tell you they’re ready to leave? Are you reading too much into it, or not enough? Are they trying to tell you they don’t trust you, don’t trust your organization’s leadership? Or maybe your silence will be met by more silence, and you’ll need to “listen” to their body language.
Do you think that each of those needs would be successfully met with the same conversation?
All it costs is your attention, and a little bit of patience for discomfort.