How do I deal with awkward silences in my meetings?

Silence is your friend

A facilitator’s job is all about conversation. And conversation means talking, right? Not always! 🤫 Sometimes silence is key to a successful conversation. But as a facilitator, it’s your job to figure out 👍🏻 when silence is productive and 👎🏾 when silence means the conversation has gone off the rails.

There are many types of unplanned silence that can occur in a meeting:

1️⃣ The Productive Pause

The first kind of silence is the totally normal pause that meeting participants need to process information. This kind of silence is good - it means your participants are actively listening, are concentrating hard to follow the thread of conversation, and are taking time to really absorb what’s being said. It’s important to embrace rather than fear this type of silence because folks need it to think and digest

2️⃣ Awkward Crickets

The second kind of silence is when there’s tension in the room that shuts down conversation. The group has fallen silent to discharge the discomfort; no one knows what to say to move forward. 🦗 If you as the facilitator rush to fill this silence or move on, you won’t give the group the chance to acknowledge the tension and get to the heart of the issue.

3️⃣ The Zone Out

The third kind of silence is harder to decipher. People don’t want to talk at all, or don’t respond to a certain question. They’re clammed up and unwilling to make the first conversational move. There’s no tension because there’s no real emotion or interest at all - people are zoned out, confused, disinterested, and probably checking email in another tab. This is the kind of silence that can sap the energy out of a conversation, and so it’s important to redirect it and get folks back in the game.

But how do you know what kind of silence you’re working with? To figure out what the silence is, you have to let the silence be. Count to 5 in your head before interjecting or clarifying. This 5 seconds might feel like forever to you, but it’s actually totally normal. (Seriously. 🙀 Don’t panic.) If folks are processing, they’ll soon be back to the conversation. If the silence is tension, you can name the elephant. If people are confused, they’ll eventually formulate a question. If they’re checking email and missed the prompt, they’ll come back to you uncomfortable that they’re now lost. By letting the silence marinate, you can figure out its source and use it to your advantage as a facilitator.

This is all good advice for when there’s unintentional silence in a meeting, 🤐 but how can you use planned silence to your advantage? There are a few helpful ways to incorporate intentional pauses into your agendas:

🗣 A Task Silence: Pause the conversation to give time for a non-verbal task like silently writing in a shared document. This kind of break not only gives you as a facilitator time to regroup but also gives less extroverted team members a different path to engage in the conversation. This might sound like, “We’re going to take five minutes. Let’s turn off our cameras, relax, and silently respond to the prompts in your agenda.”

🗣 A Thinking Silence: Direct participants to take silent time to reflect before verbalizing their responses to a question. By creating an intentional frame around silence, you once again give space for all team members to share their opinions, and you help those who might rush to fill the silence embrace it instead. This might sound like: “I’m going to ask this question, and we might need a couple of minutes without talking to process our answers. That’s fine.”

Whether by proactively designing for these pauses or by studying and embracing unexpected silences when they emerge, you can keep the conversation on track while giving all participants - introverted, extroverted, talkative, or quiet - the space they need to contribute and to be fully present with each other. In a noisy world of meetings, silence can be a powerful tool. 🪄 Use it well.

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.

Well, you’re in the right place!

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