Listen to success: Mastering the art of comfortable silence in business
As a leader, a large portion of your work relies on communication skills. You have to know how to communicate well with investors to get funds, with your employees to ensure maximum productivity and with your customers to make sales. Some business owners and professionals have discovered the power of silence as a communication tool. And that is where the rule of awkward silence comes into play.
The rule of awkward silence is a technique where you intentionally pause when confronted with a difficult question and take the time to carefully think about what you will say. Despite how awkward this may be, it can be a great way to brainstorm the correct answers, no matter the situation. Here is a look at the psychology behind awkward silence and how you can use this rule in your corporate life.
The psychology behind awkward silences
Awkward silences are long pauses in between conversations. When met with such pauses, the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotional processes) starts to enter its flight or fight mode. Researchers suggest that the reason why silence makes us so uncomfortable is that the brain essentially interprets silence as rejection from your peers.
Back when human beings used to be hunter-gatherers, rejection from the community was dangerous, and to this day, we are afraid of rejection. On average, people only take a fraction of a second before responding to someone. If it takes longer than this, people start to feel anxious and rejected, and their self-assurance starts to waver.
How long can people stay silent?
The exact length of time that has to pass for people to start feeling awkward varies from culture to culture. Americans, for instance, tend to start feeling awkward after four seconds of silence, whereas Japanese people are comfortably silent for 8.2 seconds. Some suggest that Americans get uncomfortable more quickly because the U.S. is a heterogeneous and extroverted society where people are unable to reach an understanding without speaking. So, in America, when someone is quiet for a long period, it can be interpreted as a negative thing. Taking a long pause during a business meeting can be interpreted as hesitation.
But in homogenous societies like Japan, it is easy to feel comfortable in silence. In such cultures, silence can be both a good and bad thing, depending on the situation. If you are pitching your business to a group of Japanese investors, and someone has their eyes closed and is silent, it could mean that they are carefully considering what you are saying. Alternatively, they could also be using it as a way to show disagreement without offending anyone. Knowledge of the cultural connotations of silence will help you better understand how to interpret silence.
How to use silence in business dealings
As awkward as it may be to not reply to someone immediately, silence can be used as a tool to swing the conversation in your favor. Journalist Mike Wallace was known to use the rule of awkward silence during interviews. When someone was done answering a question he had asked, Wallace would let the silence linger on. This would make the interviewee uncomfortable, and they would keep talking just to fill the silence.
This trick can be used by entrepreneurs as well. If you are a business owner and have to engage in a salary negotiation with an employee, you can haggle down by just staying quiet. The employee would feel the urge to fill the silence and thus would agree to your terms just to get out of the awkwardness.
Silence can also give people a chance to reflect more deeply and make better decisions.
Many successful business people, such as Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, ponder deeply between conversations and let the awkwardness linger. In Jobs’s case, he famously used awkward silence in his first interview when he returned to Apple in 1997 after being temporarily ousted from his position. Someone asked him what he did during his seven-year hiatus from Apple. He let the awkward silence linger for 20 seconds instead of responding to the seemingly hurtful question.
And this isn’t limited to verbal conversations. You can take your time when responding to written communication, too. Picture this: someone requests an extension on a task on a time crunch. In a rush to reply, you might say yes and regret doing so later. Instead, take some time and think about what you will say before replying, thus providing a response that doesn’t put you in an even more awkward position.
Ultimately, no matter which part of the world you are from, it is a good idea to start being comfortable with silence, especially as a business owner. This can help you become a better listener and improve your communication skills and overall leadership abilities.
Header image courtesy of Envato