The Sound of Silence

In a meeting last week, an Italian colleague commented to me that our Canadian Prime Minister sure knows how to use the power of silence, and that world class facilitators know the same thing.

In case you missed it, here’s the clip Gerardo was referring to. It clearly made the rounds worldwide:

Silence in a meeting can make us uncomfortable. It’s not the same as sitting companionably with a trusted friend, enjoying the view. We know the meeting is happening for a reason. Something needs to happen or to be said, and it feels unproductive or awkward not to get on with it. That reaction can be as strong in the facilitator as in participants.

Yet as Justin Trudeau showed, silence is powerful. Not just to make a point, but because we need it — to gather our thoughts, to let something sink in (for us or others), or even to make sure we don’t say something we’ll regret later.

Creating intentional silence in virtual meetings can be especially tricky. It’s odd to stare into colleagues faces in silence. Even if we have people turn off their videos, they are subject to more distractions and less positive peer pressure than they would be face-to-face. One technique I’ve been experimenting with is inviting participants into breakout rooms of one, with the suggestion they turn their video off (so they aren’t distracted by their own face!) and with instructions and timing for a task just like I would give to small groups.

Sometimes we are the only ones who know what we deliberately did not say, in the interest of kindness or keeping the peace. For the times you have wisely contributed to silence, kudos to you. If you need to help your team find some silence today, I hope you can find the courage to do so. If the Prime Minister can afford a 21-second pause, so can you.

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