Leave space for the other person to think

How do you feel about silence in a conversation? Some of you reading this are thinking: “Great, more opportunities for me to talk!” Others are more likely thinking: “That doesn’t happen very often”. Then there are those who probably feel uncomfortable with any sort of silence in a conversation. The fact is, silence is often perceived negatively and as something passive that only happens when someone has nothing to say. We disagree.

The value of silence as part of the listening process is much underestimated. Using silence in the right way and at the right time is in fact a powerful approach for a number of reasons, especially if you would like the other person to come up with their own thoughts, ideas and solutions.

Actively employing silence as a mindful listener offers the other person the potential of time and space to think and reflect. Silence removes barriers to the flow of thought, prompts the other person to fill the gaps and, in the process, it allows any germinating ideas to surface.

Of course, it is only natural that some people may find silence a little threatening. It can be daunting to both offer silence and to receive it. What matters is the spirit and the intention behind the silence and the non–verbal behaviour that underpins it. The length of the silence does not need to become uncomfortable but equally, you should not be afraid of keeping quiet for a second or two. It is longer than you think but not as long as you fear. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will become with silence as part of mindful listening.

Here is an exercise to try:

Step 1   Visualise the non–verbal signals that you would observe in each case if you were on the receiving end of these two different types of silence:

comfortable / encouraging silence

threatening / challenging silence

Step 2   List the different elements and characteristics you would expect to see.

Step 3   What can you identify as the key differences in the two types of silence?

Step 4   If you want to be the one who is generating a comfortable and encouraging silence what do you need to be doing in your non–verbal behaviour?


Adapted from “Coaching for Innovation – Tools and Techniques for Encouraging New Ideas in the Workplace” by Cristina Bianchi and Maureen Steele (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) – Chapter 5 – Mindful Listening as a Force for Innovation