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How to Handle Awkward Silence

Jun 13, 2024 | Business, Communication

Reading 5 minutes
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Silence on an elevator: varied reactions of individuals during an awkward silence in a confined space.

As the founder of The BRIEF Lab and the author of Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus, and BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, I specialize in helping people become deliberate, clear, concise communicators. This blog is based on a recent podcast (“Just Saying” episode 333) How to Survive an Awkward Silence. Here, I’ll share how to handle this very common situation, discuss why we’re all so uncomfortable, and tell you why you shouldn’t try to fill every unplanned silence.

How to Handle Awkward Silence

Learning how to handle awkward silence is something people usually don’t “learn” in a formal sense. Most of us either rush to fill the void with words, or look for an escape. On the other hand, learning to be a clear and concise communicator usually is focused on what we’re saying. But what about those moments when there’s nothing to say, or no one is saying anything? The silence can be downright uncomfortable. Think about it: you’re in a situation where silence falls, and suddenly, it’s embarrassing. You might feel out of place, anxious, unsure of what to do next.

Why Silence Feels Uncomfortable

Have you ever wondered why people are so uncomfortable with silence? On a psychological level, silence can trigger anxiety and insecurity. People often associate silence with negative judgments or disapproval, fearing they’ll be perceived as boring or uninterested. This anxiety can lead to a compulsive need to fill every second with conversation or noise to avoid these uncomfortable feelings.

From an anthropological perspective, we humans are inherently social creatures. Throughout history, communication was vital for survival, community building, and maintaining social bonds. Silence can be seen as a disruption to these bonds. When we encounter silence, our instincts may push us to bridge the gap and restore the flow of communication.

Why We Dislike Silence

The modern world exacerbates this pressure. We’re bombarded with information and stimuli from our devices, social media, and 24/7 news cycles. This continuous noise becomes the norm, and silence feels unnatural. Cultural norms vary widely; research conducted among Dutch and English speakers found that a mere four seconds of conversational silence caused people to feel uncomfortable, while a separate study found that Japanese people were happy with up to 8.2 seconds of silence.

Some people, maybe even you, have no trouble with these silences. In fact, you might welcome them because silence, quiet, the absence of noise—it’s all something we need. Yet, when it happens, it can feel strange.

The Power of Silence

Silence isn’t just about the absence of noise; it’s a powerful tool that can enhance communication and personal well-being. Planned silences are usually easier to handle than unplanned silences. And a person who can embrace unplanned silences may even have an edge when it comes to negotiating, debating, or learning.

1. Planned Silence

Planned silence, such as the moments of quiet at the beginning and end of meetings, is essential for several reasons:

  • Reflection: It allows individuals to reflect on their thoughts and ideas, leading to more meaningful contributions.
  • Focus: It helps people concentrate on the task at hand, reducing distractions.
  • Preparation: It gives everyone a chance to prepare mentally for what’s coming next, making the interaction more productive.
  • Anticipation: A pause can build suspense or anticipation, making the next point more impactful.

2. Unplanned Silence

Unplanned silences can be just as beneficial if you know how to use them to your advantage:

  • Pause for Thought: When faced with an unplanned silence, use it as a moment to collect your thoughts. This can make your subsequent comments more impactful and considered.
  • Non-Verbal Communication: Sometimes, non-verbal communication can speak louder than words. A thoughtful pause can signal to others that you are taking their words seriously and considering your response carefully.
  • Calm Presence: Maintaining composure during an unplanned silence can project confidence and calmness. This projected calmness can put other people at ease, or it could give you an advantage over someone else who tries to fill the silence and gives away too much.

Real-Life Examples of Awkward Silence

Being in too-close-quarters with people you don’t know well is the fast-lane to an awkward silence. Imagine being in an elevator with people you don’t know, or colleagues you barely know. Should you say something? Talkative people often don’t know what to do and can’t wait for the ride to be over.

I remember a time I drove from Chicago to Green Bay with a colleague. He barely talked, and that three-and-a-half-hour drive felt like an eternity. It was super-uncomfortable, and I still remember it 30 years later.

There are many more situations where silence can feel uncomfortable:

  • In an Interview: A momentary break or pause can feel like it lasts forever.
  • Before a Meeting: People waiting for the Zoom call to start may fall into uncomfortable silence. It’s why everyone turns the cameras off and puts themselves on “mute” until the organizer gets things underway.
  • During Conversations: Sometimes, there’s just a lull in the conversation. Should you try to fill it? Or let it be?

Strategies to Embrace Awkward Silence

1. Try It Out: During a conversation, try inserting a few moments of silence and see how it feels. Stop talking and notice how people react.

2. Challenge Yourself: Don’t just endure it, embrace it. Use those precious seconds to master your own impulse to fill the void. What feels like an eternity is often just 5-7 seconds.

3. Pause Before Answering: When someone asks you a question, pause before responding. For example, if someone asks, “How would you have handled that situation?” take a few seconds to think, and be deliberate when you answer.

4. Plan for Silences: Meetings are a great place to plan for silences:

  • At the Beginning: Suggest taking two minutes of quiet for everyone to read the agenda and think about it.
  • In the Middle: When reviewing a presentation, take five minutes in silence for everyone to read and jot down notes.
  • At the End: Use a minute of silence to reflect on action items discussed.

5. Don’t Try to Fix It: Resist the urge to fill the silence with small talk or chatter. Filling that space could actually cause more harm than good. For example, imagine you’re attending a presentation, and the speaker pauses to remember a key point. You feel the urge to jump in and say something, to “rescue” the speaker. However, this might actually prevent the speaker from making their point or recalling the information they need.

Or maybe you’re in a team meeting where your manager, who usually is very composed, suddenly pauses while discussing a new strategy. The room grows tense, and you feel the pressure to fill the silence with a comment or question. But instead, you wait. After a few seconds, your manager collects their thoughts and moves on with the discussion. If you had interrupted, he might have lost his train of thought. By not rushing to fill the silence, you show patience and respect for the speaker’s process.

Embracing awkward silences really can make you a better communicator. You can learn to manage those moments gracefully, turning them into opportunities for deliberate thought and better interactions. Remember, it’s not about filling every silence—sometimes, it’s about letting the silence speak for itself.

How The BRIEF Lab Can Help

By learning to embrace silence, you can significantly enhance your communication skills. Silent preparation and planning will ensure your communication is consistently clear and concise. The BRIEF Lab course, Quiet Works for BRIEF Teams. will show you how to accomplish this. You’ll learn to:

  • Stop communicating on the fly and ensure clarity by scheduling quiet time to prepare.
  • Embed quiet time into meetings, by beginning with a few minutes of silence to consider goals and objectives before diving in.
  • Set aside quiet time to think about your audience so you can address different interests, attention spans, and responsibilities.

Contact us to learn about our offerings; we’ll teach you and your team how to embrace a culture of brevity … and awkward silences!



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