We often evaluate the quality of a conversation by its activity; the pace of the back-and-forth banter can be used as a barometer of how engaged someone is in the discussion. Given our tendency to find comfort in sustained dialogue - thus the phrase "awkward silence" - I was very struck to see the following profound tweet: "Get comfortable with silence. Some of the most important things clients say follows silence."
The above phrase was uttered by Bill Bachrach of Bachrach & Associates, author and presenter of "Values Based Financial Planning; the Art of Creating an Inspiring Financial Plan" at the FPA Annual Convention, as tweeted by @jdpitzl.
The statement reminded me of an experience I had many years ago participating on a task force on Career Development with the Financial Planning Association, chaired (at that time) by financial planner Jon Guyton. In the midst of a pretty challenging conversation, the conference call was suddenly filled with a long, awkward silence. In a world where we often feel compelled to fill the void in a conversation after just a second or two, the nearly 20 second silence on the call was deafening. Eventually, Jon stepped in and stated "You all should be aware that I'm very comfortable allowing for silence on our calls" and with end of his comment, the silence resumed. As we all mulled over the different topic we had been debating, eventually someone stepped forward with a comment - in fact, a revelation that helped to break us through the issue that had been blocking us. Reflecting back, I was quite confident that had Jon not allowed for the silence - and given us permission for the silence to continue - we may have simply filled the void with conversation that did nothing to advance us towards a solution. It took the silence - the time to think in the middle of a difficult dialogue - to find a solution.
What Jon taught me - to be more willing to allow for silence in the middle of a discussion - is a lesson I still carry with me. Yet somehow, I have applied it frequently in the context of task forces and committees that I have chaired, without ever reflecting on how it may impact a client discussion as well.
So the next time you're working through a difficult issue with a client, and the conversation reaches a pause, try sitting back, saying nothing, and just allow the silence to happen. Perhaps, given a few moments of silence, what your client says next will surprise you.
Have you ever had a breakthrough from/with a client at the end of an extended moment of silence?