How to handle silence
part of the Facilitate Better "How To" series
853 words. Approximate reading time: 4-5 minutes. Creation time? 90 minutes to write, edit, and design graphics.
One of the most common questions people ask in my facilitation workshops is about handling silence.
Think about the last time you facilitated a meeting or workshop and were met with silence from participants when you posed a question. What went through your mind? How did you feel about the silence? How long did you allow the silence to continue? How, if at all, did your reaction to the silence change as it continued?
Many people, particularly those newer to meeting or workshop facilitation, see silence as a cause for concern. They sometimes perceive it as negative feedback that their presentation or facilitation efforts are ineffective. Silence can make them nervous or uncomfortable.
Here are four suggestions to help you think about and manage silence in your future facilitation efforts.
1. Rethink your perspective on silence.
Noticing that people are silent is an observation. The meaning you attach to the silence is an inference, one derived from your own beliefs, values, and experiences.
While it is true that silence can mean disinterest or confusion, it also can be a sign of introverted or internal participation. People often need time to think and have a conversation with themselves before engaging in dialogue with others.
More extroverted speakers and facilitators feed off the energy of participant contributions. Silence provides them little fuel. As a result, they may need to be particularly vigilant about allowing for silence and the reflection it often signifies.
In musical terms, silence is the space between the notes. A composer uses it with intention to provide emphasis and to shape the overall composition and listening experience. It is important for speakers and facilitators to do the same, and to embrace silence as a normal and desirable part of a conversation, meeting, or workshop.
2. Don’t rush in and fill the silence.
Jumping in may disrupt people who are reflecting or preparing to respond. Our role as facilitators is to simply “hold the space” to allow for that work to occur.
In some cases, group members may be waiting for someone else to go first because of the challenging nature of the discussion. It shouldn’t be you.
If you pose a question that is met with silence, try to resist answering it yourself. Doing so can send the message that you’ll fill the silence and do the work of participants.
3. Extend an invitation for verbal contributions.
Sometimes I try a little humor to break the silence: “So sorry. I’ve confused you. This is the audience participation part of the program.”
The mild chuckles this often elicits help release any tension in the air and usually lead to someone jumping in with a response.
If it doesn’t, I often try one of the following:
“I’d love to hear a few responses from people we have not heard from yet in this discussion.”
“Can I get a few of you to share your thoughts or feelings? Who is willing to start?”
“Please write down your response to the question. Post it on the wall, and then silently read others’ thoughts.”
4. Ask about the silence if it persists.
Share your observation:
I notice we’re having a lot of silence.
Check your inference:
I’m wondering if my questions/instructions aren’t clear or if this discussion isn’t resonating with you.
Wait for participants to share what their silence means. Then determine what to do next.
Remember your silence is also a facilitation tool.
As facilitators we regularly make choices about how to intervene in or respond to group dynamics.
On the spectrum of facilitator interventions included in Facilitation: Providing Opportunities for Learning, author Trevor Bentley notes the subtle distinction between (1) a facilitator doing nothing and (2) remaining in silence. Both are classified as gentle and supportive interventions that a facilitator can enact.
Doing nothing literally means doing absolutely nothing. Not only are you silent as a facilitator, you remain immobile. You hold your position and you hold your voice in support of participants deciding what to do next.
Shifting from doing nothing to silence is slightly less gentle. You hold your voice but not your body, perhaps slowly and thoughtfully moving among participants while they sit in their silence, reflecting, and/or determining how to respond.
This changes your spatial relationship with participants, and many will pay attention to your movement. Pause near some individuals and they may feel more obligated to verbalize a response to the initial question you posed. At 6’6” I have to be particularly aware of the potential impact of my movement.
Silence from meeting or workshop attendees is a form of participation. Be careful to avoid equating it with a problem you need to handle. Instead, think of it as a conversational dynamic to manage, one of many involved in the facilitation of meetings and workshops.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.