Yesterday I was teaching a leadership class, and we got into an interesting conversation about zoom, and given the fact that so much happens in the virtual world now the question was: How do you effectively engage with people in a virtual environment and create meaningful connection?
My leaders were voicing their frustrations about the lack of “real” connection in the virtual world, and how you get team members who are on the quieter side to speak up, to participate, to engage, particularly in a group setting.
“I’m often looking at a screen of black boxes with people’s names. I ask if there are any questions when I’m finished sharing my thoughts, and it’s just crickets. And then I just move on to the next item.”
The scary sound of silence
The dreaded sound of silence. The awkwardness of it. I remember when I first started facilitating, I was afraid of it. What if I ask a question and it doesn’t land? What if the participants aren’t getting it? What if they think I’m a fool who has no idea what she’s talking about?
When I first started out, I tended to rush through the content, because awkward silence was scary. I would fill it with my worst fears about my performance. I would imagine folks were thinking horrible things about me, the material, or the learning experience.
I was afraid of silence. And to be frank, I think most people are.
We’re not used to silence
We live in a busy world, full of notifications, full of ims and dings and the next thread on slack to respond to. It’s not often you hear silence . I doubt we’re even used to it anymore. There’s often a tv playing in the background in the airport, the radio or podcast we listen to in the car, even in my old office in Houston CNN was always running on the monitor in the background. Noise is everywhere.
Silence is a gift
And then another participant in my class shared something interesting. “You know, my manager brought me in the other day to facilitate a team session for a group that he warned me in advance was often quiet. He told me they probably wouldn’t have any questions. They wouldn’t engage. So I thought hard about how to approach them to get a different result. I started off the session slowly and methodically and told them that I’m comfortable with silence. I’m not in a rush, we can take all the time we need for this experience. And then I sat back and patiently waited. And the questions kept coming, 8 in total, when they’ve never asked one before.”
The story didn’t surprise me. Probably the hardest thing for me to learn over the years as a facilitator of learning was to embrace silence. To learn to love it, and to use it like Erika did in this story effectively. Because the truth of the matter is, there is magic in silence if we can learn to tune into it.
Lean it and embrace it
Over the years I’ve learned this lesson and I’m still learning it. I’ll let a question drop and patiently wait. I always have a beverage to sip on, and I’ll let myself and the participants sit in the silence, and then eventually someone will speak up. And often what comes out of that silence is a true golden insight. And if I had kept rushing at breakneck speed through the material we never would have heard it.
But often we don’t. Time is money. We’re busy people and there are many points on the agenda that need to be covered. And then we wonder why there’s a lack of engagement. A lack of participation. We wonder what it is we need to say or do to get people to speak up. We don’t often think about what would happen if we just sat back for a moment and let them.
Coaching questions for thought
- What’s your relationship with silence?
- How could you get more comfortable with it?
- What do you think would happen in your meetings if you sat back and embraced the gift of silence?
About the author
Shelley Pernot is a leadership and career coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and find a career that utilizes them. Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!
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