Facilitating silence can be a powerful tool for bringing out the best thinking from those around you.
You need to have more meetings with less talking—and more silence.
Maybe you’ve experienced the awkward moment when nobody has anything to say. Relationships may not be fully established yet, or the room becomes silent because someone said something that was out of the box and nobody knows what to say about that. This isn’t the kind of silence that I’m suggesting you facilitate or encourage.
But you should encourage the kind of meetings where people are thinking together. There is great power in a group of passionate, professional individuals who come together under a common goal to apply their collective wisdom in a unified effort to solve or create something. And they’ll be doing it with you as the facilitator, the person who does remarkable things that help them think in new ways.
If this sounds difficult, it is—especially if you are used to doing all the talking and filling in the silence with your opinions. Facilitating silence can be a powerful tool for bringing out the best thinking from those around you. It’s a way to slow down and work in a different way, together.
Think of something that you need others to help you work on; it might be strategic direction, or how you can work better together as a team. Then go ahead and set your intention for a meeting where there is lots of silence in which people are really thinking. Conduct this meeting differently from others you’ve held. Instead of directing others or doing most of the talking:
Ask powerful questions. To begin, ask the kind of questions that are forward thinking, visionary, and that you (and the others in the room) don’t know the answers to. Questions such as, “What can we do to assure we give our best thinking to this topic?” and “What would a perfect organization (program, project) look like?” As you continue, ask clarifying questions: “What is the meaning we’re discovering here?” or “What’s emerging from our conversation?” Wait until you are almost ending the conversation to ask the “how” questions: “How will we make this happen?” or “How will we influence the C-suite with this idea?” Listen to the silence and notice the energy that arises in the room.
Refrain from using your voice. In this role as the chief silence facilitator, you don’t give your opinions because you’re the boss, and you might shut others out. Because when the boss says it, it must be true, so why bother speaking up? As the silence encourager, you’re not in charge. Everyone else is. Big chunks of silence mean that the others in the room are thinking, and that’s exactly what you want. Trust that silence without interrupting it with your voice, and watch the magic happen.
Just listen. When people start to speak of their ideas, acknowledge them and just listen. The greatest way to encourage creative and discovery is for you to listen, facilitating silence in yourself. People will feel heard without you having to say a thing.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.