Writing by Peter Hilton

Normalise comfortable silence in team meetings

How psychological safety enables teams 2024-02-27 #productivity

Alexis Brown

We rarely feel calm and relaxed in meetings at work. Even regular team meetings feel forced - nothing like an easy conversation with friends.

A presumption of non-stop talking has taken over our meetings. You couldn’t stop talking for five seconds without someone jumping in.

Awkward silence

In a group, silence feels uncomfortable, while speech provides structure. This helps attendees follow the meeting and participate, but that structure doesn’t have to only come from talking and listening.

Silence during a meeting feels awkward when you feel lost in it, and don’t understand it. Awkward silence doesn’t feel safe.

Dead air

Exceptional scenarios require continuous talking. For example, radio broadcasters avoid the unintentionally broadcast silence they call ‘dead air’:

Among professional broadcasters, dead air is considered one of the worst things that can occur.

Fortunately, the teams I know don’t livestream their meetings, and don’t need DJs’ continuous coherent talking skills. Instead, we sometimes need a break from talking.

Time to think

We overuse the term meeting for a range of activities, from private chats to group workshops. These different activities have different needs.

When we use meetings to work on problems together, we need time to:

  1. ask questions
  2. share ideas
  3. think.

A lively group discussion helps surface questions and ideas, but all the talking doesn’t leave much space for thinking and creativity. Solving problems and discovering new ideas requires individual reflection. In silence.

Comfortable silence

Once a team gets used to working together, they can replace awkward silence with comfortable silence. Team members who can share a space without needing someone to talk continously have more options for how to work together, both in person and online.

When you become comfortable with occasional silence, you realise how nervous interruptions disrupt meetings. Too often, the people who just have to comment on everything contribute the least. Meanwhile, people who take time to reflect what they’ve just heard find it easier to stay on topic, and stick to a meeting agenda.

Comfortable silence especially helps distributed teams, who otherwise have to explicitly enter or leave an online meeting, to start or stop a discussion. Comfortable silence feels like several people working together quietly in the same ‘room’. Online, it allows distributed team members to keep a video call open while they work quietly, sharing a reassuring presence.

Psychological safety

Comfortable silence, like many signs of a healthy team, requires psychological safety. Without it, people treat a meeting as a performance, for colleagues who won’t accept dead air.

Without psychological safety, nervousness will make itself heard: nervous laughs and awkward jokes escalate a meeting’s awkwardness factor. Without safety no one achieves productivity, let alone their best work.

In the absence of better management, meeting facilitation can help teams get there. When they don’t have comfortable silence, a meeting facilitator can temporarily establish it by setting boundaries:

I’ve set a timer for five minutes so let’s use that time to write down your ideas in silence.

The next step comes when a team member suggests this without the facilitator, or even confidently expresses their own need for time to think, instead of overthinking the silence.

My former colleague, Maya Nedeljkovich, put it best: ‘psychological safety is the difference between an awkward silence and a comfortable one’.

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