Silence can be painfully awkward. And it can lead to misunderstandings. But, when utilized correctly, it can be a very powerful tool that can make a meeting a lot more productive.
It’s a strategy that might not make sense at first. Meetings are never especially popular gatherings. And bringing people together to just stay quiet is a baffling proposition. Research and experts, though, say it can it can be extremely helpful, especially when the purpose of the meeting is brainstorming.
To be clear, no one is proposing you call a meeting and then stare at each other awkwardly. It’s not an elevator ride or a school dance. However, a meeting that utilizes silence can prevent a single person or minority from swaying a group’s thinking. Take, for instance, that brainstorming session. One method researchers favor is sharing the ideas and then having people use something like a polling app to give their thoughts on the ideas, rather than discussing them collectively.
“If you have a bunch of people in a virtual meeting and you say, ‘Hey, does everyone agree?’ the dissenters often will be quiet, especially if the boss appears to agree, UNC Charlotte Professor Steven Rogelberg tells Charter. “But if you use one of these polling apps, then it’s a great way of actually testing consensus. It’s a great way of seeing whether dissent exists—and, if it does, giving it voice, which ultimately promotes inclusion.”
In any group of people, there’s a person or persons who guide the conversation and influence the outcome, often unwittingly. Big personalities or high-ranking positions drown out the less ebullient workers, even if they have key insight.
This was showcased in a landmark 1985 study that looked at information sharing. Each attended was given information that tied into the meeting. Some was shared across everyone, but each attendee had unique information as well. And unless all of the unique information was pooled, the decision made in the meeting would not be optimal and would fail to solve the problem being addressed.
Because of people’s hesitancy to speak up when others are ‘running’ the meeting, the optimal decision was reached less than 20% of the time.
Silence in meetings can also actually result in more (and better) ideas. A different research study divided people into two groups, tasking them solve a problem—one via open discussion, the other sitting in silence and generating ideas independently. After 30 minutes, the solutions of the groups were evaluated—and it wasn’t even close.
“Electronic brainstorming reduces the effects of production blocking and evaluation apprehension on group performance, particularly for large groups,” the researchers wrote.
Silence not only improves problem solving, it shows respect for what someone has said, assuming that person is higher on the corporate food chain than you. A study from University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that remaining quiet for a short period after someone in a higher-ranking position speaks is one of the best ways to show respect and indicate that you were paying attention.
Something as simple as a nod can say a lot more than the spoken word.
That said, if the speaker was on the same level as you or more junior, silence can be interpreted as rejection.
And, just as quiet time can calm down a situation with a child, it’s an effective way to deescalate tempers in a meeting when heads run hot. A 2020 study by Marilieke Engbers found that instructing a group to be quiet for several minutes after a spirited debate “can help prevent further miscommunication, false attribution and speculation, which are detrimental for building trust.”
That forced silence, she says, gives everyone time to understand opposing points of view and ultimately help the meeting participants work better together.
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