We’ve all experienced the feeling of wanting to escape a lull in conversation by bringing up the weather, or what we ate for breakfast. In fact, this is such a universal fear, that on googling “awkward silence”, most of the results that come up focus on how to avoid them at all costs. But perhaps these search results aren’t very helpful at all. Not only does running away from silence actually hinder our ability to connect with people –by keeping us chatting about meaningless and shallow topics – but they ignore all the potential benefits of “awkward” silence.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: So many of us aren’t actually great at conversation. We think we are, but we’re not. There’s a number of reasons for this – we’re bad listeners, we’re constantly vying to make our own voices heard, and we feel it necessary to fill up every gap in the conversation with smalltalk.
Smalltalk is a blessing and a curse. It helps us avoid the quiet moments that make us feel uncomfortable, but it also stops us from taking time to think, and therefore to have deeper, more productive and more meaningful conversations. Great minds like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk know (or knew) this.
Whether you love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny the fact that Musk has become a posterboy for innovation. Justin Bariso quotes Garrett Reisman, an engineer and former NASA astronaut who joined SpaceX, describing how Musk pauses to think in the middle of conversations: “If you pose to [Elon] a serious question, he’ll consider it. And he’ll kind of go into this, almost like a trance – he’ll stare off into space and you can see the wheels turning. And he’s focusing all of his intellect, which is considerable, on this one question.”
Bariso points out that these long pauses – sometimes as long as 15 seconds – aren’t uncommon with Musk. “You can actually see this happen almost anytime Musk himself gives an interview,” he writes. “In fact, it’s not uncommon for Musk to take from between five to even 15 seconds to think before giving an answer”.
Silences don’t need to be confrontational to be effective. In fact, it might benefit your relationship with whoever you’re speaking to for them to know that you’re really considering what they’re saying. Not to mention, it can actually prevent hostile confrontation altogether.
Bariso points out that Steve Jobs had the same propensity for silences as Musk, and that, especially when responding to criticism it seemed to help him gather his thoughts and emotions at the same time. By not responding immediately, the magical “awkward” silence gives us time to consider what we’ll say next – which help to avoid saying something we might regret.
Not only that, but Jobs frequently included pauses in his presentations, which have the benefit of making the audience prick up their ears in anticipation of something that is surely important, right? Or why would those dramatic pauses be there?
So, if silence can be harnessed and used positively – and has been by great minds – why are so many of us still afraid of it?
Silence as a superpower
As human beings we feel uncomfortable with awkward silences because we see them as some kind of social rejection – which a very long time ago would have been life threatening to individual humans. And it doesn’t even take long before a silence is perceived as awkward and uncomfortable.
Lennox Morrison, writing for the BBC, cites studies which showed that in Western societies, as little as four seconds of silence between utterances can feel uncomfortable. This, however, varies according to cultural norms. Japanese speakers, for example, are found to be content with up to 8.2 seconds of silence – double that of Americans.
Morrison writes that “in Japan, the power of silence is recognised in the concept of haragei (belly talk), which suggests that the best communication is when you don’t speak at all”.
It’s clear, then, that in some cultures the benefits of these silences are already more readily acknowledged and also that these quiet moments can become normalised on a cultural scale if given the chance. Morrison quotes Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, who says that “as soon as you need words there’s already a failure to understand each other so you’re repairing that failure by using words”.
Maintaining silences can be extremely useful not only because it allows you time to think, but also gives the person you’re talking to time to think. In that regard it can be an extremely useful tool for business.
Matthew MacLachlan of Learnlight believes that knowing how to use silences, and how to face them, can be a powerful tool for negotiation: “Chinese negotiators are very, very aware that Americans like to fill silences and they are trained to stay silent and impassive because that will make the Americans uncomfortable and possibly make concessions without the Chinese having to do anything,” he says.
This can be particularly impactful in presentations, he says. “Before starting, look at the audience and be silent for a moment because that says, ‘I’m in control. I know what I’m doing. I’m confident.’”
Melissa Dahl, writing for Time, echoes this with the words “there are times when the ability to withstand awkward silences can practically serve as a superpower”.
“The rule of awkward silence is a great tool of critical thinking,” says Bariso. “It can help you to give deeper, more analytical, more thoughtful answers. It can help you get to root problems more effectively, which leads to greater understanding.”
So, does it not make more sense, then, for us all to embrace this practice and reap the benefits of it in our social and professional lives?
We’re not saying that you have to be a creep about it and stare at people in total silence, but not shying away from quiet moments may have positive impacts on so many spheres of your life that there’s very little reason not to give embracing awkward silences a try. Get out there and use that superpower.