Shhh… the strength of silence


Picture this:  Your team (or someone on the team) comes to you looking for help.  You are asked a question.  What do you do?

You answer it, right?  That’s the normal response.  By nature, we want to help others (well, most of us do), and that means answering their questions, and sometimes even rolling up our sleeves and helping with the actual work.

How about this situation:

You’re facilitating a Retrospective for your Scrum Team and you ask them a question. Nobody answers.  Maybe your question was too hard, or they aren’t comfortable providing the answer, so you wait a short amount of time and start talking again, either giving them the answer, leading them toward the one you have in mind, or changing the question to make it easier.

So what if I were to tell you that might be the wrong thing to do?

As a Scrum Master, one of the most potent tools you have is silence.  Keeping your mouth closed is easy, but it’s also one of the hardest things to practice and teach yourself.  I had to fight every instinct to learn this one, and I still find I need to catch myself on a regular basis.  Being quiet takes work!

But here’s the thing: When you become comfortable with your own silence, you allow your teams to grow.  When a question is asked — whether in a team discussion or in a one on one setting — don’t answer right away.  However long you think is a good pause before you answer, wait three to four times that long.  Let the silence get uncomfortable, and read the energy of the room.

Don’t focus on the fact that you aren’t talking, focus on how people are reacting.  Read their body language and listen to what they are not telling you.  You will naturally start to come up what your answer might be – resist the urge to do so!  Keep yourself actively listening through the silence.  Shift all of your attention from your instinct to speak and keep it completely on your team.  Make eye contact, smile, and let the silence hang.

When you do this, one of two things will happen:

1) You give yourself extra time to compose your response and make sure you and giving the right answer (or asking a better question), should you choose to do so.

More often, however…

2) The person will provide their own answer, or someone else on the team will, allowing you to stay in active listening mode and feeling where your input is actually needed!

We don’t like silence. Most people will instinctively try to fill the silence by speaking up, rather than letting that awkward, uncomfortable silence linger.  You will be surprised at how often they will answer their own questions, or at least come up with a more insightful question than the one that was originally asked.

Your knowledge, experience, and insight is important to the team.  Your silence can be even more important.  In that awful silence, they have the opportunity to stretch out beyond their comfort zone and to grow.  The trick lies in knowing how long to let that silence hang, and when they really do need some of your sage-like wisdom.

Growth happens in those uncomfortable moments.  I’ve joked with my teams more than once that when I see they’re in that uncomfortable space, I cackle with glee on my commute home.

Silence is powerful.  Make it a part of your toolbox and see where it gets you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

About Heath

Scrum Master. Software Engineer. Writer. Musician. Craft Beer Aficionado. Jeopardy! contestant. Not necessarily in that order.