How comfortable are you with silence?

Guest Post by Sandra McDowell

Silence really is golden, but most of us will do anything to avoid it.

What is your silence threshold: a few seconds, a minute, a few minutes? Personally speaking, becoming comfortable with silence has been a journey. As a strong advocate of the effectiveness of the coach approach to leadership, I have worked hard to manage my natural tendency to try to problem-solve for others and “rescue” them from their silence. The fact is, silence is a powerful precursor for solution-based thinking. And thus, one of the keys to successful leadership is learning to get comfortable with silence.

When you ask others a question and they do not respond immediately, how quickly do you fill the space with your words? What would happen if instead you waited for them to respond? How much silence can you cope with before you feel compelled to speak? Who is more uncomfortable—you or them? These are important questions upon which to reflect.

If you can stop yourself from filling the space after you ask a question, powerful thinking and clarity will ensue. When silence happens, instead of jumping in with an easier question or your own thoughts, leverage your curiosity. Consider what is going through their mind and what has caused the silence. Are they reflecting? Considering options? Processing? Do they not feel comfortable and safe sharing with you? Have they had an aha moment?

Learning to resist the urge to solve problems or save others from silence takes practice, but the impact is profound. When you give others the time and space they need to respond, their respect and trust for your relationship increases, and their solution-based thinking is heightened. In my experience, more clarity almost always follows a period of silence.

Resisting the urge to answer your own question is not enough. Even breaking the silence with another question can interrupt another person’s thinking. Try to resist the temptation to rephrase a question or to ask an additional question. Instead, just sit with the silence. You can count in your head to 5 or 10 while biting your tongue. That’s how I wrangled my tendency to fill space when I was first getting comfortable with silence. Give the other person enough time to think and respond. It’s uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier with practice. Try it and you’ll witness its power.

Leaders who are learning how to coach often ask me if there is ever a point where they should say something to fill the space. There is no exact formula. It depends largely on the level of trust between you and the other person, and the degree of psychological safety they feel in the moment. In the case of a relationship that you already know to be high trust, giving someone time to think will likely be appreciated. In the case of a low trust relationship, or a relatively new relationship, you need to tread lightly or it could feel like an interrogation to the other person. Perhaps they haven’t had enough time to formulate a response and would like to go away to think about it, or perhaps they’re not feeling comfortable enough to share with you yet. If you sense either of these, be ready to move on without pressuring the person for a response.

In high trust relationships, when you’ve asked a question of someone, silence is golden. In fact, one indication that you’ve asked a powerful question is if someone takes time to consider their response before responding. Better yet, if someone typically talks a lot but becomes silent after you ask them a question, solution-based thinking has definitely been engaged. Get comfortable and keep your mouth shut. You are on the verge of something great.

Sandra McDowell


As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging neuroscience insights to harness the untapped power of the brain.


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