The Meaning of Meeting Silence

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Have you ever been in a meeting where the speaker asks “any questions?” and then when there are none, she/he follows up by saying “good, I’m glad everyone understands”?  All too often speakers ask this question with the intent of helping, but don’t realize that they failed to understand the true meaning of silence, and turn the question into a “rhetorical ask” that generates fewer and fewer questions.

In addition to coaching presenters and evaluating how well they’re managing the delivery process, I often facilitate meetings, especially Vistage CEO Board meetings and Commanding Strategy Strategic Leadership Advances (SLAs). Unfortunately, I see this pattern often: the speaker interprets silence as agreement and/or comprehension rather than what it often really means: “I don’t know how to phrase the question I have.”

This true meaning of silence parallels the challenge people have with trying to imagine something in the future. For instance, in his Ted Talk on the Psychology of Your Future Self”, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist notes that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”  They can’t imagine their futures, not because of a personality-flaw/disability, but because they haven’t built an imagination muscle.  (It’s the reason in our Age Brilliantly(.org), workshop, “Exit Your Business and Launch Your Future Self”, for business owners of all ages and future retirees, we purposely work on building the muscle, before asking people to start identifying how they want to spend the next 30-60 future years.)

Since it’s not always possible to build muscles with your audience, how can you avoid the heuristic, we’ll call the “silence bias”? 

  • First, recognize it is a heuristic and don’t assume silence means agreement or total knowledge.
  • Follow-up with questions whose answers prove the people know the material (Follow-up Does everyone know the 10 commandments, by asking “Good, who can share them with the group?”
  • Come prepared with a few questions based on the facts presented.
  • Come prepared with questions which ask the audience to apply 2-3 key points you covered to situations not directly covered in the material.

Remember, the goal is for people to regurgitate when they hear, but to take the lessons and extend them.  try it next time, and share how much more was learned.