Why We All Need To Stop Talking In Meetings
How silence can produce unexpected results!
I must have attended at least 500 meetings over my working career across widely different organisations from teaching and education to the health care sector, and more recently a student travel organisation. That’s about two meetings a month for twenty years, although I am sure the number could be higher.
Interestingly, out of all those meetings in different places all over the world in different jobs, I think no more than a handful stand out. The rest were generally dull and often seemed a complete waste of everyone's time.
Even 'good news' meetings were de-motivating. Learning about exciting team events and financially advantageous pay structures could still be enough to send everyone to sleep. New this? New that? Ho hum.
When I started organising meetings myself I fared no better despite encouraging ideas from everyone in the team and making them interactive and fun where possible. Whether we met in small or large groups, in meeting rooms and cafes, it always seemed a bit fake, then afterwards we would return to our usual daily grind as if it never happened.
The only times meetings seemed to get everyone engaged was were when there was a major announcement which would negatively affect us all.
Then one day something happened by chance in a meeting I organised which was to completely change everything.
It happened at the end of a small group meeting, there were three of us and it was nearly time to go home. We were all tired, and because of this, and perhaps feeling less inhibited, I just stopped talking.
My silence lasted at least seven seconds, possibly ten. Sandra and Lucy just sat there.
Numerous studies show (M. Heldner and J. Edlund, Journal of Phonetics 2010) that two seconds is the average wait time before someone would feel the need to speak again.
Those 7-10 seconds were a very long time.
I asked if they had anything to add, they said no.
I continued to sit in silence. I remembered my time spent living in a remote village in the Bolivian Chaco desert where the locals could sit endlessly without making small talk. I continued the silence and started counting.
I got to ten seconds before I felt involuntarily obliged to communicate something. It was too hard to resist but instead of saying something I tried smiling, we all smiled. It was funny. We connected.
‘Oh yes, I was just wondering what we are going to do about X?” Sandra asked. X was a problem we had looked at briefly months previously but never returned to it with a solution. It was completely off topic.
I replied honestly, ‘ I don’t know, to be honest I haven’t thought any more about it.” I asked Sandra if she had any ideas? She shook her head.
Then I went for silence again with a facial expression that communicated that I was thinking about it. But I wasn't.
Then I actually started thinking about X. But they were all nonsensical thoughts. Nothing worth saying.
Sandra started visibly thinking about X.
Lucy started visibly thinking about X at the moment when it was clear neither Sandra or I were going to come up with something. Lucy had always been more reluctant to participate in meetings.
Then out of nowhere and quite suddenly the three of us came up with the solution for X. A real one, not a crazy idea. Talking over each other at precisely the same moment we had discovered the perfect solution.
I asked Sandra and Lucy if they had thought of it before. thought it was weird on two counts, how we all came up with it at the same time and it was a solution that wasn't our usual approach.
Everything in the meeting before the silence was now forgotten irrelevance. We now had a solution for problem X which was actionable straightaway. Sandra even offered enthusiastically to stay late to get started but I told her to get a good nights sleep and start fresh the next day.
I do not know why it worked and continues working in every meeting I organise. I am no psychologist or socio-linguist, all I know is that by deliberately including silence, strange things happen.
So my advice for any meeting organisers? Stop talking in your meetings. You may find a solution for the problem you never knew you had and enthusiastic genuine team working you have never seen before.
Caroline works at student travel organisation Original Volunteers. Previously spent 10 years working abroad in language schools and volunteer projects on three continents.
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