About a year ago I met one of our team members in person for the first time. We hung out for the entire day, talking about all kinds of things, problems we were facing with our company at the time were amongst them.

During those conversations he taught me a simple yet rather powerful conversation technique: the awkward pause. It’s since become an important tool for me in 1:1s and conversations with other people.

When you talk about a problematic topic, there tends to be that moment when the other party stops talking. It can happen for lots of reasons. They don’t want to rat someone out, they don’t want to vent, they’re looking for the right words to express themselves, or the topic is so uncomfortable that they don’t want to continue talking about it.

When you’re impatient, it’s tempting to pick up the conversation in those moments. You ask further questions, you start talking about your point of view, you possibly even change the topic thinking that there’s not much more to get out of it.

Our intuition makes the awkward pause weird for both of us. It feels uncomfortable because no one is talking when this entire meeting is about talking, exchanging ideas and thoughts. The temptation to chime in and take over the conversation is big. Nobody likes the awkward pause.

When you chime in and interrupt the awkward pause, breaking this uncomfortable silence, the topic likely drops off the other person’s mind. Whatever troubles they’ve had, they’re unlikely to come up again in this meeting. They’re more likely to come up in some future conversation, when that person has gotten to a point where the topic has made them so unhappy that it turns into a vent, or maybe even in their resignation.

Interrupting the awkward pause means losing out on invaluable information and insight. What comes after the awkward pause is usually the real issues on that person’s mind. Whether what you’re going to hear is actionable or not, a vent, a personal issue, it’s the underlying issue of everything else you’ve talked about up until this point.

It’s the essence of what the conversation is all about. Breaking out of the awkward pause makes sure that essence is lost forever, possibly never to be seen again.

When you find yourself in a conversation and you can feel that you’re in an awkward pause moment, take a deep breath, focus on the other person and just wait. Resist the urge to continue the conversation and let the other person continue digging up the real issue that’s on their mind. Resist the urge to break out of the awkwardness and just let the other person talk when they’re ready.

Embracing the awkward pause is possibly one of the simplest and most effective tools to make you a better listener. It helps you build trust and develop more patience in conversations with your reports and your peers. I’d go as far as considering it an essential leadership skill.

Thanks, Dan, for teaching me an invaluable skill!

Tags: leadership

Being an introverted person in a leadership position is challenging. The one thing that exhaust you the most is now your main focus, interacting with people.

Personally, I didn’t fully realize that I have introverted tendencies until I read the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking”. I’d considered myself shy before then, feeling awkward trying to strike up smalltalk conversations, even just talking to other people, and constantly feeling a need to hide in quiet places to get away from chatter and to focus on my own thoughts.

I chalked it all up to being shy, and it left me in an uncomfortable position. Am I confident enough that I can pull out the relevant skills to be the CEO of an entire company, especially the people part?

Since then, I identified a few routines that helped me balance the needs of being in a leadership position with my introverted nature.

Read every day

Reading has become a very important part of my day and my progression from trying to get a startup off the ground to taking on the role of leading said startup as it matured.

Books have played an important part in helping me shape my own thinking about what I’d like our company to be, and about what I’d like to become. They’ve helped me narrow down on a few problems and helped me focus on solutions for them.

Beyond that, taking time to read is also time to reflect. A lot of books I’ve read have given me one or two key realizations about what I need to improve, what I’m doing well, and what our company can do differently. That one spark is worth reading an entire book for me.

For the introvert in me, reading is quiet time. I usually read first thing in the day, before I do anything else, and before the noise of the day starts crowding my mind, distracting it from the focus required to read.

Take long walks

I started taking walks after I read “Thinking, Fast & Slow”, which was a revelatory book for me, in terms of understanding myself, our customers and my team. Did I mention that reading is amazing, and that you should read every day?

Throughout the day, your brain is busy processing information, impressions, conversations, and adding to that, you’re trying to get it to focus on the work that needs to get done. Giving into this feeling of constant busyness is a downward spiral, leading to even more work, feeling stressed out, and emotionally exhausted.

For me, this ends up with work trickling into my personal life, be it by keeping my mind busy with work topics when I get home or on weekends, or affecting my moods at home.

Beyond reading, the best medium I’ve found to let those thoughts loose is to go on walks. Not just 20 minutes walks, but up to an hour. I walk at a relaxes speed and without any particular place in mind that I want to go. When you walk towards something, your mind is focused on that, and it doesn’t free up mental capacity to think and process. When you walk too fast, you may notice similar things.

I prefer to walk on familiar paths, a sort of roundtrip through the neighborhood, if you will.

After a while, magic happens. My head stops being overly busy, all those thoughts quiet down, and it feels like my head is a lot more responsive to giving it small triggers, like “I wonder what I could write about next?”, or much broader than that, “Containers?” Even small triggers suddenly leave my mind to wander around the topic, looking at different angles, maybe even finding a conclusion. It feels like magic.

Walking, all by myself, has turned out to be an important tool in processing information collected throughout the day, week and month, and working on extracting the patterns, the bigger picture, and what I could do about them.

Schedule time away from the office

As a leader, it’s likely you have a strong urge to always be around your team, being ready to jump in and help them at any time. You may also experience the fear of missing out, always wondering and curious what’s going on in your team, in team chat, and around the company.

That fear and the constant hovering adds to the emotional drain, contributing to a constant feeling of burnout, yet you feel guilty about not being there when your team needs you. It’s too hard to disconnect and focus on yourself and your own work, so that starts slipping and adds more to the constant state of busyness.

The above scenario isn’t an introvert’s problem, it’s the disease that our modern work day has become. In addition to feeling like I’m not progressing on my own work, this situation added to my own feeling of work topics trickling into my personal life, as little time was left to process all that information and recharge.

I started scheduling in weekly time away from the office, time that I spend in a coffee shop or elsewhere, noise-canceling headphones plugged in, working on bigger topics or just letting my mind wonder.

Initially, this didn’t feel like work, and I felt guilty, even selfish, for taking this time. But then I realized that I’m actually getting results from this time away from the office. It allows me to progress on important and bigger company topics, yet it gave me the isolated space that my introverted self needs to focus.

Taking walks, reading and spending time away from the office have become important stop gaps for me. They give me the time and space to process, recharge, figure out the bigger picture and come up with solutions for problems a crowded brain might not otherwise be able to extract.

Write every day

I sometimes struggle forming thoughts into concrete sentences when I talk to people. Part of that is because I’m having trouble forming a complete picture in my head, which I feel I need before I can say something. This reflects in how I approach thinking about bigger company topics as well. I need time and space to form my own opinions on things, and there is one tool that’s been the greatest help for me in this, writing.

I try to write, every day. Whether it’s working on a blog post, whether it’s writing an internal proposal, a summary of a call I’ve just had with someone to send around to the team, or simply writing a journal.

I’ve done the latter every day for almost two years now, and it’s become an essential part of my every day work. I’m using Day One whose reminders pop up multiple times throughout the day to help me capture what I’m thinking. Longer prose also goes into Day One at times, as some situations warrant a longer thought process, which is effectively reflected in what I write. For anything else, I’ve started trying out Ulysses, before I’ve used NValt and Byword for writing. I enjoy the simplicity of a full screen app with just a cursor.

It doesn’t really matter what tool you’re using, what matters is that you get beyond that moment of utter fear instilled by a blank screen with a blinking cursor on it and just write down what’s on your mind.

Writing requires me to focus, and it allows me to make sense of all the noise in my head. It’s my one outlet of processing all the information I collect, consciously or not, throughout the day.

Take your time in making decisions, but follow up on them

I need time to process information, to figure out any patterns and to come to my own conclusion on it. That process can involve writing, thinking, walking or listening to more opinions, gathering more insight from our diverse team.

That can sometimes be frustrating for others, especially when they want to move forward with something quickly. There are situations where I can just say “Sounds good.” and trust them with all my heart.

In other situations, I make a commitment to get back to them in a certain amount of time. The more you define that amount of time and keep your commitment, the more trust you can build with people over time. When they know that you do follow up and keep your own commitments, they’ll get more used to this being your mode of making decisions.

I found those two to be a good balance between making sure things don’t get stalled all the time and my own need for thinking things through a bit longer before I can come to a conclusion.

Beyond reading, writing, walking and spending time at the office, I’ve started meditating daily to try and tackle another issue I’ve mentioned earlier. Oftentimes I find my mind thinking about work things when I’m at home. I get distracted playing with my daughter, reading a book to her or over dinner, and I have an immediate urge to work on the thing I just thought about. I found that rather frustrating, and I’ve noticed that meditation helps me focus a lot more on the moment rather than have my mind wander endlessly.

What helps you foster your introverted nature as a leader? What helps you lead introverted people on your team? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

About a year ago, while hanging out with people from a friendly company in San Francisco, one of their junior people asked me a seemingly simple question: “What do you do for fun?”

I was stunned, and I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know what I did for fun, and I almost panicked from not being able to come up with something beyond hanging out and spending time with my friends and family outside of work.

Back in the real world and at home, I continued pondering this question, and happiness and the simple question of “What do I want?” have become regulars at coaching sessions, in podcasts I listen to, and in other articles.

While it took me a while to realize it initially, the biggest part of my job is now to make sure that everyone in our company is happy. I’ve been focusing so much on it that I rarely give myself a moment of happiness, or that I take any kind of appreciation for myself. All praise belongs to the team. I devoid from giving any credit to myself, simply because I think I don’t deserve it, other people do. For more on this topic see my previous post on the importance of appreciation.

While focusing so much on the company and other people, it’s easy to forget this most important thing in your own life: you.

You consider the question of what you want invalid, because you think your existence is to serve others and make them happy. Or you don’t think that you alone deserve anything, instead success and results need to be shared with the team. Claiming anything for yourself feels selfish.

All these things ring true for me, anyway.

As a founder, you’re not just financially invested in your own company. No, you want to see this thing succeed, and you want to do everything in your powers to help make it succeed, whatever it takes.

And it only takes this one more thing, right? If we can achieve X, then I can finally take a deep breath and take care of myself.

But what if after X, suddenly you want to achieve Y? What if X is never achieved, and other circumstances change the goal? What if X takes a lot longer than you thought it would (hint: it always does)?

When X doesn’t turn out the way you intended, your original goal is quickly forgotten. It’s just one more step towards taking care of yourself, isn’t it?

In the early days of Travis CI, my goal was to start looking after myself once Travis CI had reached a certain size. Then I’d finally be able to spend more time with my family and figure out what I can do for fun. That moment never really appeared, at least not in a reasonable time frame.

More growth meant new challenges, new things to learn, new goals to focus on for the company and for my own personal growth in my role. So there it went, moving the goal slightly further into the future.

This time, I set a fixed goal for myself. I had promised my daughter to take her to New Zealand before she goes to school, which is this year, and she’s now in her fourth week. We ended up planning for a seven week trip, which meant seven weeks away from the business. I vowed to be completely offline, to not read any email and avoid any contact with work, focusing on the here and now instead.

These constraints were harsh, and it posed a challenge to everyone while I was away. Everyone took some bruises, and we learned a lot along the way, we figured out where our company was still hurting and worked on improving these parts. I’m grateful for this experience, and I couldn’t ask for a greater team to handle these challenges.

The important lesson out of it, though, wasn’t that the business will be better off in the long term based on my being away. The important lesson is that taking time off and away from everything else isn’t selfish, even though it feels like that. It’s about taking care of yourself, which is more important than a lot of founders will be willing to admit.

Focusing on yourself means asking what you want, what makes you happy, what you can do for fun. In the early days of building out your business, they will feel like selfish questions, like you don’t deserve anything nice while you build up value for your employees, for your customers, and maybe for your investors.

It’s okay to think about yourself, as early on as possible. What you want is just as important as what everyone else wants, and if you don’t take care of yourself early on, you’ll look back at that time with appreciation for what you’ve built, and regret about the things you missed out on personally.

Remember that taking care of yourself can have positive impact on your company too. Everything you do sets an example, both good and bad. If you work and work and work, everyone else will too. If you find a happy medium between work and life (including personal happiness), everyone in your company will strive to follow your example.

As for myself, I’m still working on the question of what I do for fun. I’ll keep you posted.