Awkward silence, a leadership skill

There are times when leaders opt to shut up and simply listen; or pause to make others reflect and introspect

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Sudden silence in the middle of a serious and important debate, can be quite uncomfortable. However, many leaders actually strategically plan such a prolonged pause. This requires skill too and emotional intelligence. After all, one has to pause at the right juncture. One has to know exactly when to stop speaking. Some thought has to go into creating a gap at the opportune moment, for others to fill, meaningfully, so that the discussion gets directed towards a logical and desired conclusion.

Says Bhawna Kirpal Mital, general manager, human resources, Hero Future Energies, “I have certainly used this tactic to my advantage during presentations. It gives the attendees time to assimilate what I have said and ask relevant questions. This also propels the discussion towards a meaningful outcome.”

Pooja Anand, head – human resources, India, IDC Technologies, rightly points out that different age groups react differently to a strategic pause in the middle of a discussion.

Having worked in the HR domain for almost two decades and specialised in leadership hiring and campus hiring across levels, Anand has observed that the younger lot — those in the 18 to 25 age bracket — tend to use the pause to introspect and reflect.

However, those in the 30 to 40 age bracket are the ones who are likely to come up with relevant questions and suggestions, viewpoints worth considering and even brilliant ideas.

The more senior lot will delve into their treasure trove of experiences and fish out some incident related to the topic and try to apply it to the current situation.

“The ones who speak the most after such an awkward silence are also the ones who are otherwise shy — the so called introverts,” observes Anand.

Pooja Anand

“A planned pause immediately after mentioning an interesting or key phrase, such as ‘growth opportunities’, can actually transform the passive listeners into active participants in no time, especially the younger lot.”

 

Why is an awkward silence good?

Not many people enjoy talking. Some are happy just listening. However, not even those who speak less can sit in a room with ten others in absolute silence. In a group, pin-drop silence can make those present feel very uncomfortable and anxious. Sooner or later, somebody will surely say something to break the silence, and that is exactly why the ‘awkward silence’ can be, and should be, leveraged.

This kind of silence can force people to think, reflect, meditate and introspect.

“A planned pause immediately after mentioning an interesting or key phrase, such as ‘growth opportunities’(in the case of the younger lot), can actually transform the passive listeners into active participants in no time,” explains Anand.

She strongly believes that as an HR leader, opting to be silent in an emotionally charged moment helps one to look at the situation from a different perspective. It gives more clarity and helps one make a more informed decision.

Bhawna Kirpal Mital

“I have certainly used this tactic to my advantage during presentations. It gives the attendees time to assimilate what I have said and ask relevant questions. This also propels the discussion towards a meaningful outcome.”

How can HR benefit?

During interviews, if the interviewer opts for a prolonged silence, it really pays. In fact, the interviewer can actually take the reins of the conversation firmly in her/his hands by choosing not to speak at strategic points, and leaving it to the interviewee to fill in the gap. Opting to be an ‘active listener’ will not only cause the conversation to slow down a bit, but also force the candidates to keep talking and revealing more of their true nature.

Even while dealing with employees who are anxious, upset or worried about something, HR can truly benefit from not speaking. Instead of directly attempting to resolve the issue, HR professionals may consider remaining silent and lending a patient ear. By doing so, they may actually allow the other person to hit upon a solution herself.

Most successful leaders do not hesitate to take their time to reply. It allows them to measure their response. What finally leaves their mouths at the end of the ‘pause’ is worth the wait. Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are two of the best examples.

It may not come naturally to everyone, but the truth is that by shutting up at the right time, one may actually open the doors to great deals or innovative ideas.

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