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Don’t Fill the Awkward Silence

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

November 15, 2019 Partnership for Talent

I was reminded recently of my first day as Investor Relations Officer for a public company with $2.6 billion in market capitalization. I had zero investor relations experience and my first phone call was with a sell side analyst who had more than 40 years in the business. He was known as one of the tougher analysts on the "street", I was intimidated to say the least. I will never forget his opening words....I can even quote them verbatim:

"You and I are going to get to know each other very well, one of your key roles in this job is to hold hands with the sell side. And let me give you the best piece of advice I can....don't fill the awkward silence, and guys like me are going to give you a lot of awkward silence. Don't fall for it"

I have carried this advice with me for a lot of years, used it on any number of occasions- when working with clients, when coaching senior leaders, when talking with opposing attorneys, when speaking with employees in uncomfortable situations, the list goes on. I recently passed this information on to a member of my team who is growing in her HR career and fell into the trap of filling the awkward silence and getting into a place she did not intend to be at the start of the conversation.

In our super fast, constantly connected, always talking society I am finding this piece of advice more and more applicable. We have become so uncomfortable with the silence that we can't seem to help ourselves. I would make a case that honing your ability to live in the awkward silence for a bit will serve you well as a leader, as an HR person, as a human being. Taking a moment in the awkward silence does a number of things:

  • It gives you a reasonable amount of time to internalize what someone is saying, formulate your thoughts and respond in a thoughtful and supportive way

  • It helps to prevent you from responding to things that you probably shouldn't

  • It gives a moment for your mouth not to get ahead of your brain, and it is in these moments that we speak about things we really don't know about or say something we wish we hadn't, both of which make us look....well, let's admit it, foolish

  • And, assuming that the person on the other end of the conversation is just as uncomfortable with the awkward silence, and most people are, it oftentimes leads to you getting information that they didn't intend to share with you and that you can leverage advantageously

Honing this skill takes work, requires us to SLOW DOWN, and will feel very uncomfortable at first. I encourage you to approach every conversation in a deliberate manner looking for opportunities to not fill the awkward silence. I'd love you to let me know how it goes!


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