Ssilence can be painfully awkward. And this can lead to misunderstandings. But, when used correctly, it can be a very powerful tool that can make a meeting much more productive.
This is a strategy that might not make sense at first. Meetings are never particularly popular gatherings. And bringing people together to keep quiet is a bewildering proposition. Research and experts, however, say it can be extremely helpful, especially when the purpose of the meeting is brainstorming.
To be clear, no one is offering to call you a meeting and then awkwardly stare at you. It’s not an elevator ride or a school dance. However, a meeting that uses silence can prevent a single person or a minority from influencing the thinking of a group. Take, for example, this brainstorming session. A method favored by researchers is to share the ideas and then ask people to use something like a polling app to give feedback on the ideas, rather than discussing them collectively.
“If you have a bunch of people in a virtual meeting and you’re like, ‘Hey, is everyone okay? dissenters will often be silent, especially if the boss appears to be on board, UNC Charlotte professor Steven Rogelberg told Charter. “But if you’re using one of these polling apps, it’s a great way to test consensus. It’s a great way to see if dissent exists and, if so, give it a voice, which ultimately promotes inclusion.
In any group of people, there is a person or people who guide the conversation and influence the outcome, often without their knowledge. Big personalities or high-ranking positions suffocate the less ebullient workers, even if they have key insight.
This was highlighted in a landmark 1985 study that looked at information sharing. Each participant received information related to the meeting. Some were shared by everyone, but each participant also had unique information. And unless all of the unique information is pooled, the decision made at the meeting would not be optimal and would not solve the problem at hand.
Because of people’s reluctance to speak up when others are “leading” the meeting, the optimal decision was made less than 20% of the time.
Silence in meetings can also lead to more (and better) ideas. Another research study divided people into two groups, asking them to solve a problem – one via open discussion, the other sitting in silence and independently generating ideas. After 30 minutes, the groups’ solutions were rated – and it wasn’t even close.
“Electronic brainstorming reduces the effects of production blocking and evaluation apprehension on group performance, especially for large groups,” the researchers wrote.
Silence not only improves problem solving, it shows respect for what someone has said, assuming that person is higher in the corporate food chain than you. A study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that staying silent for a short time after someone in a higher position has spoken is one of the best ways to show respect and indicate that you were attentive.
Something as simple as a nod can say a lot more than the spoken word.
That said, if the speaker was on the same level as you or more junior, the silence can be interpreted as a rejection.
And, just as quiet time can calm a situation with a child, it’s an effective way to defuse anger in a meeting when things get heated. A 2020 study by Marilieke Engbers found that asking a group to be quiet for several minutes after a heated debate “can help prevent further miscommunication, false attributions and speculation, which harm the establishment of trust “.
This enforced silence, she says, gives everyone time to understand opposing viewpoints and, ultimately, helps meeting participants work better together.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.