How can I prevent (or navigate) an awkward silence in a group space?

The Dead Zone

You’re facilitating a meeting and ask, “So, what does everyone think?” 🤔 

And then…nothing. The silence is acute. 🤐 Suddenly no one has an opinion, or if they do, they’re certainly not sharing it. Welcome to The Dead Zone ☠️. It’s every facilitator’s worst fear, and one of my least favorite meeting dynamics to encounter.

If you’re a facilitator who gets a little anxious when you encounter silence, you might automatically try to fill the silence with an awkward string of hesitant suggestions (📣 ”Okay. Hmm. I was thinking that…”) or even more questions that fall flat (📣 ”Does anyone want to contribute their thoughts? Still no?”). Unfortunately, this approach is likely to make things even more awkward and even more silent. (Eek. 😱)

So how do you get out of The Dead Zone? I rely on three techniques:

1️⃣ Clarify the Prompt

I try to never ask “What do you think?” in the first place because it’s a quick route to awkward silence. This question tends to make people spiral, especially if they’re people-pleasers. Minds start racing:

😥 I don’t know, what do you want me to think?

😥 What are they angling for me to say?

😥 What if no one agrees with my opinion?

But if you’ve already asked the question and lost folks in The Dead Zone, you can bring them back by clarifying and focusing the prompt. 🔬 The clearer and more specific the question, the easier it will be for people to step into the space and answer it because they know exactly what you want from them. Clarify to get the conversation moving again.

2️⃣ Find Allies

It can be really helpful to go into a meeting knowing that someone there has already expressed an articulate view about the question you want to pose. It might not be the only perspective, but you know they’re confident and comfortable with their answer. If you find yourself in The Dead Zone, you can break the silence by turning to this ally and saying something like, “You and I had a conversation about this last week, and you had a cool way of thinking about it. Would you mind starting?”

🚨 A word of warning though: make sure your ally won’t steal the mike and never give it back again. A little coaching before the meeting can be helpful if you anticipate issues. You want this technique to restart conversation, not start a monologue.

3️⃣ Use Multi-Channel Communications (or Don’t)

Chat functions can be incredibly useful when you find yourself in The Dead Zone. Sometimes it’s easier for folks to share ideas via chat rather than out loud, so use this to your advantage. This might sound like, 👂 ”Let’s take a minute to write out our perspectives in the chat. That way, we can get a snapshot of what everyone is thinking.” Once folks have shared, you can prompt a few participants to verbalize their opinions in greater detail to get the conversation going again.

⚠️ However, there are times when a productive conversation in the chat totally shuts down verbal conversation. As a facilitator, this can be annoying and difficult as you try to facilitate, read the chat, and keep track of your agenda all at the same time. If you want to keep the conversation going and shut down a distracting chat backchannel, be clear about what mode of communication is going to be used for what at the beginning of the meeting. Some people are way more comfortable firing out a quick chat message than they are saying something in a group space. If you want to encourage verbal conversation, make it clear at the beginning that the chat function isn’t going to be used this way.

🗺 The next time you find yourself lurking in the awkwardness of The Dead Zone ☠️, these techniques can help you find your way out - and maybe even avoid it completely. 🤞🏻

I’m guessing you’re here because you want to get better at leading groups, improve your meeting culture, and maybe even organise some great events.

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