Protect the Silence: It Has Much to Offer

It’s taken time – you see I’m an extrovert – but I have learned to appreciate silence. Whether a learning event, meeting, working session, workshop or check in, I value time when no one is talking. I know it can feel uncomfortable for some and sometimes the seconds can feel like hours to others, but I have learned that this is time well spent.

Here are some reasons I always design for solo time:
  • To give time to think. Not everyone can think while others are talking. Not everyone can jump into dialogue seconds after being told they are going into small groups. Some need a few minutes to consider the question being asked or the information just offered.
  • To offer space to engage in a unique way. Everyone brings different preferences for engaging, thinking, and working. Time for solo work, can give just the time someone needs to draw something out, stretch before jumping into dialogue, or look something up connected to the work.
  • To re-read. When something is complex, new, or different from what we are used to seeing, we can benefit from re-reading things from time to time.
  • To prepare. Before going into breakout rooms or small groups to chat or work, it is often helpful to give time to engage solo first. It’s an equalizer, and allows everyone to have something ready to share when they gather with others.
Here are a few times to insert silent time:
  • After a presentation. In silence, participants can often benefit from being given time to consider what they thought about what was just offered. Inviting them to write 1-2 ideas or questions can sometimes be exactly what people need to enter more easily into dialogue with others.
  • Before a presentation. Listeners can sometimes benefit from a few minutes of silent time to decide what they want to listen for. Writing this down can also help.
  • Before sharing in small groups. We can’t say this enough. Not everyone is ready to jump into group work the minute we say ‘go’. Give them a minute to prepare themselves.
  • At the end of a session. If it was important enough for me to be at a learning event, meeting or convening, it must be important enough for me to consider implications for my work or life. Making room to name action items or plans is wise to do before leaving.
Here are a few tips to consider:
  • Get comfortable with it. Silence means you are not talking. Set the task and then get out of the way and wait. If you are not comfortable with it, your group will feel it.
  • State the time available. My level of engagement will vary depending on how much time I have. For example, if you offer me 10-15 minutes to do a solo task, I may decide to sit in more comfortable chair away from my desk.
  • Check in with the group. Not everyone is ready when we think they should be. For example, although you offered 5 minutes for a task, some individuals may benefit from a few extra minutes. Ask.
  • Give clear instructions about what to do. I can’t do what I am not clear about.
  • Offer choice. While some may need to work through a challenge by drawing it out, others may prefer to go outdoors for 20 minutes to think it out. In general, adults will select wisely for themselves and benefit from autonomy. 

A word of comfort: Don’t panic if nobody is talking. Silence is often not a sign of disinterest or lack of understanding. Sometimes it just means that someone needs time to reflect what is being asked, consider what they want to share, or decide which thought trail to follow. Get comfortable with silence. As long as the design is purposeful, you have the right people in the room and you are inviting the right engagement, silence means they are working.

Spaciousness in our events and convenings can feel like a luxury at this time. It’s not – it’s essential. Design for it; hold space for it; and protect it.

How can you make space for silence in your next meeting or convening?

Jeanette Romkema is a GLP Senior Partner and Co-owner.

Read more blogs by Jeanette.

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