As a society, we just don’t seem to like silence! We’ll do just about anything to avoid it. We’ll spend countless hours preparing for conversations, just to make sure there won’t be any uncomfortable silences. We’ll talk when we have nothing to say. We’ll even throw in filler words like “um” or “uh” to make sure there isn’t a moment of silence in between our words. Here’s the irony: Those pauses in communication can be one of the most powerful communication tools we have.
Think about it for a minute. There’s really only three ways to communicate; we can make statements, ask questions, or listen. Of those three, it’s been proven over and over that asking questions and listening are the two most important ways to communicate.
Now, what happens if we put our phobia about silence together with our need to ask questions and listen? In a sense, that is the recipe for the perfect storm, or should I say, the perfect bad communication storm. We know we have to ask questions to stay in control of a conversation, but questions don’t count if you can’t convince the person you are communicating with that you are honestly listening to the answers. Here are a few scenarios you might recognize:
- To stay in control, we are frequently trying to figure out our next question even before the person we are communicating with has finished answering our question. We not only risk missing valuable information, but we also may be demonstrating just how badly we listen by asking a question that has just been answered.
- Even if we are in the moment and focused, we may literally be squirming for an opportunity to ask more questions rather than experiencing a silent moment. If we have asked a deep question, we need to be listening to the answer rather than quickly responding with a follow-up question.
It seems so obvious. Why don’t we just pause more? The answer is quite simple: a pause in a conversation is not nearly as easy as it might seem. One of the biggest reasons why the pause is so difficult is because of our own internal clock. I use the term “clock” loosely because it doesn’t use the same measurement that a normal clock does. In fact, it’s a faster clock. If you don’t believe me, sit down with a friend and time the pauses you think you’re taking within your conversation. We are so uncomfortable with silences that our internal clock runs about three times faster than a real clock. What feels like three seconds to you is actually about one second on a real clock.
If the person you were speaking to was using your internal clock, I’d let this point go, but they use a real clock! What feels like a few seconds to you feels like a split-second to the person you’re talking to, so he or she feels like you haven’t heard a word they’ve said. Imagine a conversation that went like this:
You: If it isn’t too much trouble, I’d sure like to hear about that.
Person: I’ve never told anyone this before, but that part of my life worries me.
You: (In a split second) Why do you feel that way?
Can you see how disingenuous that follow-up question would feel? For years now, I’ve tried to battle this problem with a secret weapon. That secret weapon is a metronome. I create scenarios that require deep, sometimes painful, questions. I allow those questions to be asked and answered. I set that metronome to a nice, easy beat, and when a response to a question is delivered, I force my clients to pause, and wait three beats before responding in any way. It can feel like an agonizingly long pause when in reality, it’s rarely longer than three seconds. How do we make the best use of those three seconds of time?
- With real eye contact.
- With facial expressions that mirror those of the person we are listening to.
- With a look showing that we are concentrating and actively listening to what is being said.
- With a true demonstration of empathy that comes naturally when we are truly processing the words that we have just heard.
When you allow yourself to experience “The Power of the Pause,” you will find yourself connecting at a deeper level with those you are communicating with. It might require a metronome, or perhaps just a good sense of rhythm, but with a little discipline, we can all get there!