I learnt to use this technique many years ago after completing a leadership course on coaching and counselling, and it has come in handy many times. In a nutshell, it involves you asking someone a very open-ended, non-judgemental question and giving them the space to answer it.
Let’s take an example where you’re having a difficult conversation with a team member. Maybe they have been consistently missing important deadlines, and you need to try to get to the bottom of why.
You start the conversation by describing what you’ve observed, and then you ask them what’s causing them to miss the deadlines.
Avoid the temptation to put words in their mouth. It’s presumptuous and gives them an easy out. If you find yourself saying “is it because…….” stop.
Now’s a good time to sit quietly and wait for them to give you an answer. Wait for however long it takes (don’t worry, it won’t take long).
Their first answer is likely to be a superficial one so you could then ask “what else”.
Then sit quietly again and let them think. Repeat until you get to the real reasons.
As a quick side note, it’s vital to start your questions with “what” rather than “why”. Why sounds judgy, even when you say it in the nicest way possible. For example “Why are you consistently missing deadlines?” vs “What are some of the challenges you are facing in meeting your deadlines?”. Try saying both of these questions out loud – can you hear the difference?
When you start with the word ‘why’, you risk getting the conversation off on the wrong foot.
Let’s go back to creating those uncomfortable silences. It’s going to feel a bit weird for you but my advice is to push through it. You’ve probably played the conversation you’re having over in your head a few times before having it, so you’ve had time to think about what to say. They haven’t so it’s only fair to give them time to process things. Just take a breath, relax and stay calm, and they will do the same.
This technique can be used in so many situations – as a leader, a parent, a friend.
As a leader, I’ve often used it when dealing with people who are underperforming and have low self-awareness. People only change when they have their own aha moments about how they need to improve. Using uncomfortable silences helps them dig deep to come to their own conclusions.
I’ve also used it in team meetings when I’ve asked the team for their thoughts, feedback or ideas. It gives people time to think. Eventually, someone will say something, and you end up having a more insightful conversation.
As a parent, I use it to help my children understand the consequences of their actions. For example, what could happen next time you run out on the road without looking? I just keep asking “what else?” until they get to the right answers themselves – much to their annoyance.
As a friend or colleague, I use it to listen and to stop myself from diving into solution mode. Sometimes people just need to vent and being silent (but attentive) helps them work through the problem on their own as they talk through it.
Give the awkward silence a go – you won’t be disappointed.
Silence isn’t empty, it’s full of answers.
This is a 5:29m video on ‘The rule of awkward silence’.
It has a slightly different take on how to use awkward silences yourself to develop your own critical thinking and avoid emotional responses. The benefits of taking time, or giving it to someone else, are the same. It just takes some practice.