With over 12 years of practice in product strategy and design, Ruben is passionate about people and problem solving through innovation. He is a strong and empathetic leader inspiring teams to deliver the best customer experiences.
Conversations are the core of our jobs when working in technology and Agile teams. It's how we do research; it's how we elicit requirements from stakeholders; it's how we fulfil most rituals as delivery teams. And even though it's so critical to our jobs, we often don't pay attention to how they happen and their quality.
A conversations' quality is affected by the people involved and their personality traits, knowledge depth, hierarchy, culture differences or dialogue' mediums. People use a chat to connect, to express their opinions and demonstrate knowledge. Some people use it to show dominance.
As a designer and researcher, communication is a crucial aspect of my job. It never came naturally to me, though, and recognising my strengths and weaknesses helped me realise that a lot of talking (rambling) doesn't necessarily translate to excellent communication.
Silence isn't the bogeyman
As an introvert, jumping into social interactions is an effort and takes a toll on me. I always found it hard to deal with being in silence, particularly when you're in meetings with peers and senior people who probably expect you, as an 'expert', always to have an answer and continually providing your expertise. Silence generally makes people anxious and awkward, and we often like to fill it with chit-chat, like speaking about the weather to keep a conversation going. Research shows that humans associate quietness with rejection when interacting with others and communication, from an evolutionary perspective, is the way to keep us connected.
I learnt throughout my career, though, that silence is undervalued and often necessary. Silences, when intentional, are a particularly important form of non-verbal communication. They signify to others that response is welcome; they indicate interest and generally make space for unexpected thoughts and creation. Realising this removed my awkwardness associated with silences and I now use it as a tool to improve conversations.
How to use silence as a tool
Silence is used as a tool by many types of professionals. Therapists practice it to incentivise patients to open up, negotiators to gain an advantage, public speakers for emphasis and dramatic effect. User researchers, business analysts and generally conversation facilitators should use it too. Here are a few of the things I try to remember when guiding discussions:
Count to 7: if you want to allow someone else to contribute, count to 7, especially after an open question or when they complete a thought. Yes, it sounds like a lot of time and will bring the awkwardness in silence, but it works. The first four seconds build some discomfort which will force the other person to fill the silence. The remaining three seconds will give them time to think, collect their thoughts and start talking.
Do not interrupt silences: This sounds like a simple one, but it is common in any conversation to rush into asking more questions or following with your opinion. Give people time after they become silent, count to 7; they might be just collecting their thoughts or pausing for breath, and you might have lost a chance to obtain some critical insight.
Do not complete sentences: If someone struggles with a word or sentence, we tend to try and help complete them. It's second to our nature. We're programmed to help others. In business conversations, this can do more harm than good. It can cut someone's thought process and embarrass someone by making them think they were saying something wrong.
Do not make personal comments: Saying things like "That's great!" or "That must be hard." signifies to other people that you agree with them and you're happy with their response. It will often kill further thoughts; silence will do the opposite in such circumstances.
Use open-ended questions followed by silence: Ask 'what', 'how', 'why' type questions, they're the ones that compel others to fill the silence, unlike short or single-word answers. This practice is particularly important in group conversations or facilitation exercises.
In group settings, avoid using silence after an individuals' intervention: it puts individuals on the spot, and it can become embarrassing.
Pay attention to frustration signs: Too much silence can cause frustration and signify disinterest to those who you're interacting with, though. Read someone's body language and their tone of voice for those signs. Reassurance that you're engaged is critical, open-ended questions and some of the following tips will help to avoid this issue.
Use your body language and eye contact to fill silences: Some subtle head movement and nodding, keeping eye contact and gestures make you look more likeable and approachable. These make silences less awkward and keep people engaged in conversations.
Drink some water: Everyone needs it, and it is an expected and easy way to make silence natural and giving a chance for others to fill it.
Ask questions that display interest: If you can't help it and feel the need to fill silence try and use phrases like: 'Tell me more about that.', 'What are your thoughts on it?' or 'Can you elaborate?'
So next time you try and fill the silence in a conversation, think why you're doing it and if silence would be more beneficial. Context is essential, though, and even though silence can empower some discussions, it is not a rule of thumb.