The power of silence

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your team is keep your mouth shut and allow them to process their thoughts, writes Douglas Lang.

As a leader,  are you frustrated that your people don’t take more ownership for dealing with the issues that come up for them and which you think they should be able to solve themselves? As a result you often have a queue of people outside your door or at your desk, looking for you to solve their issues. 

It occurred to me the other day that there are a few practices that are used by professional coaches in their work with clients that might be useful to those in leadership positions who are faced with this issue. So here’s a tip that you might want to try – to elicit more ownership and confidence in your people – and to free up some of your valuable time.

There is often a temptation, once we’ve asked someone a question and we haven’t received an immediate answer to assume that either:

  • They didn’t understand the question and therefore we need to ask it again in a slightly different way, or
  • They don’t have any ideas or ‘the answer’ so we‘ll need to give them a solution.

   The problem with doing either of the above things is that, just at the point you do this, the person you’ve asked is probably getting to the point where they’ve thought about the question and about to come back with some ideas.
   As soon as you jump in again you are likely to break their train of thought and as a result they’re less likely to volunteer their thoughts.
   It’s much better in this situation to trust that the person has actually understood your question and the silence is a sign that they are ‘processing’.
   In this case the best thing you can do is to keep your mouth shut; live with the silence (they’re probably not even aware of it anyway as they are doing some thinking) and allow a few more seconds for them to work through their thinking process.
   If you can do this you’ll often be amazed by the quality of response that comes back. By simply allowing space for someone to think things through without feeling rushed for an answer, more often than not they’ll come up with some relevant and ‘personally-owned’ ideas (rather than your ideas).

The net result of the above is:

  • Increased confidence for the individual in their ability to solve issues themselves.
  • Less time for you spent dealing with your people’s ‘stuff’ and more time available to get to the important work that you really want to do.
  • A whole lot of new and different ideas being generated by your people – who may well come up with better ideas than you if they get the time  and opportunity to do so.
  • Growth and development for your team.
  • Increased engagement from your team as a result of them feeling valued and trusted to work things through for themselves – which then results in more discretionary effort being applied in their roles and higher productivity.  

Douglas Lang is the director of Altris Ltd specialising in leadership development and coaching.  


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