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Why You Need 180 Seconds of Silence

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What’s the best thing to do for your crazy-busy, super stressed out, overachieving team? 

180 seconds of silence.

Some background: Last week a colleague and I were designing a short strategy meeting for one of the federal offices we work with. Our client was late to the planning call and, when she hopped on the phone, informed us she had only 90 seconds to talk. Instead of reviewing the prepared agenda, she vented about how her team was swamped, they were buried in work and would be in a mad dash for the next six months.

We listened as she talked for five minutes (instead of the 90 seconds she'd originally promised). She didn’t like that our agenda for the strategy meeting was heavy on action planning—she felt the team was already at capacity and that putting more dates, milestones and deliverables on their plates would only make things worse, not better.

Action plans were a non-starter, so we proposed that the best use of the team’s time would be to have a conversation about how they could sustain themselves as they scrambled to meet tight deadlines. Our client got quiet, taking in what we said, and responded, “That would be very useful.”

Fast forward to the day of our meeting:  We have a total of two hours.

I turn to my client and let her know we’d like her to say a few things to open the meeting but before doing that my colleague and I have a short exercise we’d like to do to transition the team from the frenzy of their day to the meeting. 

We wanted to slow things down a bit...

I told the team we were going to sit in silence for 180 seconds.  I’d set a timer and, when we were done, they’d hear the alarm go off. We’d then start the meeting.

I set the timer.  The team sat in silence.  180 seconds of total silence—an eternity when you’re with others. No talking. No laughing. Just silence.

Admittedly, I wondered if perhaps this was a bit silly. Even I was unprepared for how long three minutes of silence felt. But slowly, a calm started to settle in over the room. Until finally:

*Ding* *Ding* *Ding* *Ding*

As the alarm shattered the silence, our client opened her eyes, turned to me and said, “That was the most valuable three minutes I’ve had all week.”

The team had slowed down, their frenzy—worn on their faces when they came in the room—was visibly absent, and we got to work figuring out how they could get through the weeks and months ahead. 

At the end of the meeting my client shook my hand, thanked me, and said she would be starting all team meetings with 180 seconds of silence.

Three minutes to take stock, reset and get clear. How do you help your team reset during periods of high stress?

Image via NLshop/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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