The most underrated leadership quality is the ability to be quiet.
There’s a prevalent sense that effective managers know how to talk to their employees. That we lead them through the conversation to get to a realization, or come to a decision. And, certainly, managers spend a lot of time talking throughout their day, and it’s an important core skill to know how to effectively communicate with your folks. I don’t want to diminish that at all.
But I think it’s equally important to know how to guide the conversation without talking, and to know when to shut up and just let others talk. I’ve met more than a few managers who have felt a compulsion to lead the conversation. But this is pretty understandable, and ultimately human.
Silence is uncomfortable. The other party in the conversation feels compelled to fill it in. Based on a 2009 study by Tanya Stiver, humans have a compulsion to respond within 200 milliseconds after their conversational partner has finished speaking.1 And, as Stephen C. Levinson points out, that’s also the minimum amount of time it takes for a human being to respond to anything.2
Think about this in relation to your team. In conversations with your team, both you and your team are stuck in a constant cycle of react/react. Halfway through your folks’ statements, you’re already thinking of what your response should be, based on your own subjective experience. Halfway through your response, your folks are composing their own next response, based on their subjective experience. Neither side takes a moment to fully listen to and synthesize the experience of the other before responding.
If you’ve ever been in a therapy setting, the subversion of normal conversation is something you notice almost immediately. You talk, and the therapist, well, often doesn’t.3. She leaves gaps for you to continue talking. When she does contribute to the conversation, it’s often “I hear you saying X, and I wonder if you can tell me more about that”.
Truth comes out in silence, and therapists know this. An effective therapist never recommends a specific course of action but, rather, leads you to plan your own actions through conversational prompts set by your own narrative.
When in 1:1s, this can be very powerful. As a full stack manager, you have a wealth of experience to draw from when one of your folks comes to you with a problem. But you’re failing her if you just offer up a solution. She will grow more effectively if she approaches the problem, talks it through, and comes up with a solution on her own. Your job is to listen actively, and bring her back to specific pieces of what she’s talking about for deeper introspection.
Graz was an associate account manager, who was feeling like he wasn’t being very effective with his clients, but didn’t really know why. He was relatively new in his role, both with the company and as an account manager. His manager, Jen, knew that he was managing the clients well, but at a superficial level — he was taking requests and passing them on to project managers to implement, then passing the results back to the client. It was exactly what was expected from him, and he was doing a great job at it. But he was clearly unfulfilled in the role, and came to Jen to ask for advice.
Jen knew where Graz’s strengths lay, and what direction he could move into to become more successful. He was a strong relationship builder, who was really good at advocating for the client. He was building his skill in project management through his schooling, but hadn’t really had a chance to flex those skills in this role. But Jen knew this from her perspective – she knew where she would go with those strengths. Would Graz find fulfilment in that same path? Her perspective of his ability wouldn’t necessarily match what he found challenging and rewarding.
Jen asked him instead to tell her about his current role. What was good? What was challenging? What got him up in the morning to come to work? And, most importantly, what was missing? She purposefully kept quiet during the conversation, because she wanted to give him space to reflect on the answers he came up with.
When talking about what was good and challenging, he said that he loved the client interactions, and advocating for the client – great! But when asked what was missing, he started talking about working strategically with clients. Jen paused. He continued. He wanted to be a better partner for the client, helping them to think critically about their business and how we could bring them to the next level. He felt that he didn’t have the agency in his current role to do that; that the agency wanted him to focus on the more mechanical side of things. It was the mechanical that he was finding draining and unfulfilling, because he never got to do more than that.
By pausing, Jen got more information out of Graz than if she had responded immediately. Going on her perspective of his strengths, she likely would have recommended that he start engaging his project management skills as a way of finding fulfillment, so that he could better understand the mechanics involved in serving his clients and be a better advocate. But Graz, given the space to talk, opened up an entirely new path that played more to his strengths as an account manager, and better served the role while also giving him fulfilment: being a strategic partner to his clients.
Jen used this to help direct him, after. She asked if Graz had weekly syncs set up with his clients. Of course, he did. She paused again. Graz pondered this for a moment, then suggested that he could make use of one of those syncs to start talking about his clients’ goals, and how we could work together to accomplish them.
"Great!" Jen said, and started thinking of ways that she could start challenging him to think more strategically, going forward.
Could Jen have got there without the silences? It’s possible. But the power of the silence here is that Graz came to these conclusions on his own, and was much more bought into the path forward as a result. This is the power that being quiet, as a leader, brings.