People are comfortable with different ranges of silence – from one or two seconds up to a couple of minutes or more. In some contexts, people will be comfortable finishing each other’s sentences, talking over each other and interrupting, so there is never silence.
Silence can mean different things to different people and in different situations – some positive, some negative and many neutrals. It could be a sign of:
feeling very comfortable with the speaker
respect for the person who is speaking – especially if they are in a senior position or are more experienced
reflecting on what the speaker has said before answering
agreement with what is being said
wanting to avoid embarrassing the speaker by openly asking questions or disagreeing in public
being unsure of how to respond
lack of understanding due to language barriers
discomfort in the situation
deliberately making the other person feel uncomfortable.
To encourage more silence and pauses:
Circulate a meeting agenda by email and ask people to reply to you with their ideas before the meeting. You can summarize those ideas at the start of the meeting and ask participants to reflect on them for a few minutes before starting the conversation.
At the start of a meeting, if appropriate, ask each member their main motivation for attending. Pause before inviting the next speaker to talk. By encouraging members to listen and pause from the start, you can set a slower pace for the rest of the meeting.
Speak more slowly to change the pace of the interaction. Other people will often slow down with you and there will be more pauses and silence.
Ask someone to summarize or repeat what they just said to give yourself more time to comprehend.
If appropriate, interrupt others, ask if you can ask three questions, pause, then ask the first question. Mentioning three questions gives you a chance to interrupt or redirect again if necessary. By pausing the flow, you can create more space in the conversation.
If appropriate, tell people you need a little more time. 'Would you mind waiting for a second while I make some notes?'
Take a break or pause the conversation, offer the other speaker a drink or snack and remain silent while getting it or while it arrives. This can re-set the pace and introduce more pauses when the conversation starts again.
When a decision has been made, ask for a couple of minutes of silence for everyone to think through it before confirming it.
Use typed meetings if possible. Log into a webinar platform and use the chat function to communicate by typing. As this is slower than speaking, there will be more pauses in the conversation.