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How to Run More Effective Meetings (Use Silence)

Silence enables unexpected things to emerge, especially during meetings. When we stop talking, we make space for reflection, new perspectives and ideas to show up.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 17, 2021

In business and life, it helps to understand how to use the power of silence

We live in a noisy world: we confuse talking with contribution and noise with productivity. The biggest culprit of ineffective meetings – interruptions – is caused by loud voices, not quiet people. Yet, we praise the first and stigmatize the latter.

Silence is a powerful ally; it creates space for new ideas to emerge.

Research supports the benefits of embracing silence during meetings to leverage the perspectives, ideas, and insights of all attendees.

In this post, I will show you how to use silence to run more effective meetings. Hint: You don't need to turn every meeting into a silent one to benefit. Silence is more effective when it works hand in hand with noise. Use both mindfully rather than seeing them as rivals.

Welcome the Sounds of Silence

"Silence is sometimes the best answer." –– Dalai Lama

We live in a world that rewards loud people. Unfortunately, those who stay silent in meetings are seen as insecure, lacking creativity, or not having anything important to say.

Silence enables unexpected things to emerge. When we stop talking, we make space for reflection, new perspectives and ideas to show up. We are also making it easier for others to take space. Gordon Hempton said: "Quiet is a think tank of the soul. We take the world through its ears."

Talking doesn't equal engagement – and the other way around. Silence is not always a sign that something’s going wrong. There are two types of silence: detachment and reflection.

We usually associate silence with the first type. When people don't talk in a meeting, we believe that something is wrong with them. However, silence also means reflection: people need to think before they speak.

Silence creates a pause that adds more meaning to what's being discussed in a meeting. It also invites everyone to participate.

Research shows that silent brainstorming sessions produce more, higher-quality creative ideas than vocal sessions. Non-talking meetings neutralize the fear of being on the spot or undergoing peer evaluation. Furthermore, silent meetings avoid the negative effect of production blocking – when only one person can share an idea at a time. They make it easier for introverts to express their opinions without waiting for the right window of opportunity.  

Studies by Adam Grant show that introverted leaders usually deliver better outcomes than extroverts because they promote freedom and privacy. The most spectacularly creative people in many fields are introverted, according to research mentioned in Susan Cain's book Quiet.

Introverts – and many ambiverts – feel more comfortable working quietly: silence is a catalyst for innovation. So, how can you use it in your favor in your next meeting?

The Benefits of Silent Meetings

Silence is feared for the same reason that it’s so powerful: without words to fill the void, we make room for richer voices to emerge.

In meetings, silence is necessary – especially to address complex topics.

Silence has a bad rap and needs to be reframed positively. Start with your next meeting. Invite your team to reflect on how they can use silence to:

  • Make room for everyone to speak up
  • Create a pause to transition from one topic to another
  • Make space for new ideas to emerge
  • Balance air time between loud and quiet voices
  • Change the meeting pace and recharge participants

You can use silence to overcome common meeting challenges:

• Overcome groupthink: silence provides a space for people to come up with their own ideas before listening to others'

• Regain focus: when meetings are going off track, invite participants to silently reflect on why and what they can do about it

• Go deeper: rather than sharing the first answer that comes to mind, silence provides time for people to dig deeper, avoiding shallow solutions

• Address processing speed differences: some people need to think to talk, others talk to think – silence sets the stage for everyone

• Deal with painful situations: candid feedback or bad news can paralyze people; let them stay there for a while – don't rush the process.

I will now share different methods that you can use to unleash the power of silence in meetings – experiment and see which works better for your team.

Methods: How to Use Silence in Meetings

Silent Check-ins

Starting your meetings with a check-in round is a powerful way to stay focused, especially in a virtual environment. Check-ins provide a space for people to share what's keeping them busy, excited, or worried, so that they set those thoughts aside and focus on the task at hand.

A silent check-in serves the same purpose but, rather than talking, people use silence as a space for reflection and letting go of those worries.

Peace and profit shouldn't be balanced like most companies try to achieve with life and work. At Dry Farm Wines, they recognize the unity of both ideas and encourage employees to live with peace and create profit in every moment.

What better way to bring that purpose to life than with a silent check-in? Every day, the team at Dry Farm Wines gathers at 10:00 am for this morning ritual. A silent meditation helps members practice gratitude, reflect, and make space for new ideas.

The 5-Second Rule

Participation cannot be forced. Regardless of how enjoyable the topic or how inviting your questions are, you have to set the stage for people to speak up. The 5-Second Rule is a technique to make meeting facilitators more aware of this. Silence is uncomfortable, especially in a virtual setting; start by modeling the right behavior.

The next time you ask participants a question, just shut up. The sooner you do, the quicker people will chime in. Many facilitators fail to stop at the question mark– they think asking more questions will increase participation.

Embrace the discomfort of silence to make people feel comfortable. Wait a full 5 seconds before moving on to the next activity. If silence becomes uncomfortable, imagine the difficulty people have speaking up in a group setting.

A pause sends a message that you really want participants to respond. Furthermore, people will realize that you’re making space for them to take space. For example, when you ask, "Do you have any questions?", wait silently for at least 5 seconds before speaking again.

If it feels too awkward to stay silent, find an activity to focus on. I like to take a sip of water, slowly, to make space for people to speak up – I do it slowly to create a 5-second pause. It also feels more natural than counting up in silence.

Facilitate a Silent Brainstorm

Silent Brainstorming (or silent storming) is an alternative way to get people to come up with ideas. It allows participants to think without distractions or being influenced by others.

It took me a while to embrace this technique. My approach to brainstorming has been deeply influenced by my time at Stanford's d.school. Many years after, I've come to realize that having a group of people brainstorming out loud, frenetically, and all at the same time is not very effective for introverts.

A silent brainstorm allows participants to come up with new ideas in silence, at their own pace, and without external influence. It helps overcome groupthink and peer pressure. Many studies show that silent brainstorming generates better creative ideas.

The implementation is relatively easy: you share a challenge and allow people to contribute with their ideas. Ideally, you don't want others to see who's writing what.

A second phase helps integrate ideas and benefit from a "yes, and…" approach, allowing people to build off each other's ideas. Invite the team to share – for example, consolidate individual sticky notes in one MURAL – and work to take critical ideas to the next level.

You can then move to a verbal debrief to cluster and select key ideas.

Ask Someone to Ring the Bell

It feels like a paradox that I'm talking about silence and suggesting a noisy method. However, as I mentioned before, silence and sound are two sides of the same coin – you need one to appreciate the other.

"Who is going to ring the bell today?" That's the ritual for team members at Heiligenfeld after a silent check-in. The volunteer takes possession of a bell and will use it when ground rules are not being respected. The sound of the bell is an invitation for participants to reflect in silence. "Am I in service of the topic we are discussing?"

Silence helps get meetings back on track. When you feel that your colleagues are getting off-topic, making power plays, or talking over others, just ring the bell.

Turn Silence into Disagreement

We were trained to assume that silence gives consent. However, in most organizations saying "yes" is welcome, but disagreement is usually not.

Leaders often tend to ask people if they agree with a particular conclusion or decision in meetings. When people stay silent, the common assumption is that everyone's on board. The truth is people have a hard time expressing disagreement; leaders should reframe the meaning of silence to confirm whether or not there's alignment.

In The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni recommends changing the meaning of silence to "no." Rather than assuming that people agree when they stay silent, infer that they don't.

Before closing an action item in a meeting, ask for feedback: "Does everyone agree?" Then, if someone doesn't voice a ‘yes,’ assume that they don't. Before moving to the next item on the agenda, encourage everyone to verbally confirm they're on board.

Next time you're in a meeting, introduce the "silence as a 'no' norm." Inform your colleagues that you will need everyone to voice a 'yes' to confirm their okay –silence will be taken as a 'no.'

Hold Silent Meetings

This practice's name can be deceiving – not all "silent meetings" are 100% silent. Sometimes, it can be 90% silent, sometimes less. A rule of thumb is that a big chunk of the time will be spent reviewing materials, reflecting, sharing ideas, etc., without participants speaking to each other.

What makes silent meetings unique is that they promote an entirely new approach. Rather than having endless conversations, it allows all voices to be heard. Not only do they feel safer for quiet people to participate, but they encourage loud voices to slow down, too.

Jeff Bezos popularized silent meetings as a way to overcome busyness. He realized that people don't make time to prepare ahead of a meeting, wasting a lot of time together. By allowing the first half-hour for participants to read the memo and reflect, the vocal conversation is more focused and productive.

At Square, teams hold silent meetings that are 100% chatter-free. Here's how it works: attendees review a Google Doc in silence, asking and answering questions via Google Doc comments. After 30 minutes – and having identified key points to be discussed – the team kicks off a focused conversation. As thoughts and ideas are written and shared, everyone has a chance to "hear" without worrying about someone talking over.

Pause and break

Silence creates a space to transform experiences; it makes room for new things to happen. You can use silence to break the rhythm – to slow down or accelerate meeting dynamics.

Virtual meetings require breaks for people to take care of personal needs and recharge. Continuing a meeting after a 10-minute recess helps people regain focus and reignite momentum.

A pause between two activities sets the stage for when teams need to switch their mindsets, like transitioning from a personal reflection to sharing with the group or consolidating ideas.

Silence interruptions, not every noise

In the past year, I've been experimenting with different virtual meeting etiquette to help remote teams perform at their best. Bad meeting behaviors have been amplified by using Zoom or MS Teams. Technology has made participation flaws more visible: interruptions have become more frequent and interrupters have become worse at reading the (virtual) room.

Asking people to stay muted when it's not their turn to talk is an easy fix. Not only does it not address the root problem, but it also feels unnatural. Too much muting can be a bad thing. Professor Sigal Barsade, an expert in emotional culture, believes that it hinders catching nonverbal cues.

Body language is critical to communication – when people have their cameras on, productivity increases by at least 20%. Vocal tones are also vital for virtual collaboration. Barsade believes that muting participants silences "emotional contagion" – an automatic process of how we catch emotions from each other through nonverbal cues.

Group emotion is manifested through the echo of other people's noises, such as laughter or background noise. We've all become mindful about how to manage equal participation but had created a 'cavern of silence' in the process.

Barsade has a great point: background noises can help build group emotion and make people feel more connected. Designing for silence means preventing people from speaking over each other, not killing their emotions—silence interrupters, not their background sound.

How Can You Use Silence in Meetings?

Silence makes space for divergent perspectives and ideas to show up unexpectedly. Experiment with the different methods above to increase participation, balance all the voices, and increase productivity and creativity.

Silence isn't just necessary; it must be designed. But, first, you must get used to the discomfort that silence creates. Using silence in meetings is very powerful, but also counterintuitive – you must practice and practice until you get it right.

Remember, you don't need to turn every meeting into a silent one. The power of silence lies in working hand in hand with noise. Use both mindfully in your next meeting.

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