The Power of Silence in Creating Psychological Safety
Silence in a meeting can be a warning sign of very low psychological safety, but that’s not always, or even usually, the case.
We all have our own, very different, preferences for how we speak up, contribute and communicate, especially in group settings. Some of us prefer to dive straight in to debate, whether we’re sure what we’re going to say or not, whilst others prefer to have time to put our thoughts together first and think about what we’re going to say, and how. These preferences are often exacerbated in video calls, especially with lots of people present.
Maybe we’re conscious of speaking over someone else or interrupting them, so we prefer practices such as putting a hand up before speaking, whilst others are comfortable with a more lively debate. Our background, expertise, gender, age, ethnicity, perceived social class, language (and whether we’re communicating in our native language or not), any neurodivergence, and the degree of psychological safety in the space all influence our inclination to speak up and contribute. Indeed, we all know what it’s like to simply be tired, anxious, or hungry in a meeting!
Silence can be uncomfortable
Silence can be uncomfortable in meetings, especially virtual meetings, and almost unbearable for the person running or chairing the meeting. A few seconds can feel like a lifetime for someone responsible for keeping the meeting productive and on-track. If you struggle to cope with silence, try counting for 6 seconds during the silence, and don’t speak until 6 seconds are up. Invariably, someone will speak during that time, and if they don’t, then you can attempt other strategies to increase engagement such as lean coffee, whiteboarding, or sketch storming.
When I was young, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, and had trouble forming sentences and speaking properly. I had speech therapy until the age of around 8 years old. The word “hammer” was a particular challenge for me, apparently. I don’t know why. I can say hammer really well now. Possibly related to this is my own preference for taking time to articulate and form what I want to say before I speak – as opposed to working out what I’m going to say whilst I’m speaking. This means I prefer to take a little silence before speaking up.
But silence isn’t necessarily bad
I believe this pause is useful for everyone. It allows for a more cogent, relevant and useful discussion. I also believe this tendency has made me a better leader. I used to think it was a weakness: maybe perceived as a lack of understanding of the content of the discussion. I would speak less in meetings than other people, and what I contributed was often more concise than others. But over time, especially as I moved into leadership roles, I found that my inclination to pause provided others with an improved space for speaking up, and a calmer, more thoughtful environment for discussion.
I wonder if we should all try to pause a little more. Think about what we say, how we say it, and how we deliver it. Imagine if meetings were 30% less talk, and more thoughtful consideration, with better quality contributions as a result.
Practical actions to use silence effectively
Try the one-minute silence technique: after a question or topic has been raised to the room, enforce a full one-minute of silence. This counters the effect of the most eager and confident people speaking first, while the more thoughtful people are putting together their ideas and response. After the minute is up, ask for contributions in a controlled manner, by raising a hand or flipping a piece of coloured paper. Offer the room first to those who tend to speak less.
The practice 1-2-4-all is a strong way of generating insight and engagement even in very large groups where people may be reticent to speak up. (Thanks Daniel Osborne in the psych safety community for the heads up on this practice).
You may want to ensure that you begin meetings and collaboration sessions with “safe” questions or icebreakers, to encourage people to speak up, but it’s important to recognise that even when someone feels psychologically safe to speak, they may still need more time to articulate and form what they want to say.
Fundamentally, recognise that silence isn’t necessarily bad. It may be uncomfortable, it may feel unproductive, but it can be really powerful.
For a deep dive literature review on psychological safety and silence in organisations and teams, read this excellent paper by Daniel Costa Pacheco, Suzana Caldeira and Ana Isabel Damião Moniz.