To Be a Better Listener, Embrace the Awkward Pause

01 October 2015 by Mathias Meyer

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
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